Thursday, October 30, 2014

What The Media Didn't Report: Deleted Expert Comments

A glance at what the media left out in this week's news about children and parents. 

Menopause News

Woman who had their ovaries removed report fewer menopausal symptoms if they live with young children according to a new study:

"These are intriguing findings," Lorenz said. "For women who were menopausal when our study began, those with young children at home actually showed more symptoms of hot flashes. But the women who underwent rapid menopause because of the surgical removal of their ovaries showed a dramatic reduction of symptoms." Science Daily

DELETED: “Women thinking about getting their ovaries removed should not adopt a child or become pregnant in order to forgo discomfort from hot flashes” warned Lorenz.

Social Media News

"If you realize you are not the best communicator and you don't have the best relationship with your child, adding another channel, such as Facebook or email, might improve the relationship," Schon said. Jennifer Schon, a doctoral student, University Kansas

DELTED: “Or it might end in your daughter defriending you. Especially if she just posted a semi-clothed selfie.”

College Is Really Dangerous News

Twelve percent of the nation’s top colleges and universities have tanning beds on campus, and nearly half have them either on campus or in off-campus housing, according to a report published online Wednesday in JAMA Dermatology.

DELETED: Experts suggest that in addition to epidemic numbers of sexual assault, binge drinking and campus shootings, parents of college-aged kids should worry about tanning beds.

Being A Parenting Is Terrible News

"The arrival of a third child is not associated with an increase in the parents' happiness, but this is not to suggest they are any less loved than their older siblings.” Mikko Myrskylä, professor of demography at LSE and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany.

DELETED: “Nor does this suggest third children are any less wanted even if they are forgotten at preschool, trapped in carseats all day, stuck with pilled hand-me-downs or left home alone with older brothers playing Call To Duty.”

I Can't Believe There's Parenting Advice On Decorating Websites News 

Pediatric sleep consultant Susie Parker tells Apartment Therapy, "If your baby wakes before 6 a.m. (new time), hold off on going to their room. Let them hang out until 6 or you may inadvertently set a very early new wake-up time." HuffPo

DELETED:“Or switch out those nasty cheap roller blinds for some custom floor-to-ceiling black out shades available in a chic cabana stripe perfect for the well-dressed nursery and a well-rested baby.”

Miracles of Chocolate News

“The researchers point out that the product (a flavol extract) used in the study is not the same as chocolate, and they caution against an increase in chocolate consumption in an attempt to gain this (beneficial) effect.” Science Daily

DELTED:“The researchers also caution against any suggestion that the timing of the publication and press releases about this study, funded and conducted in collaboration with Mars, Inc. coincided with Halloween.”

Related Candy/Sugar-Coated Cereal News

From the esteemed Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

“Our study suggests that grocery shopping with children often can have negative consequences on the healthfulness of grocery purchases…” says Pamela J. Surkan, assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.

DELETED:“Parents should considering leaving children home alone or locked in the car rather than risking their health by bringing them into the grocery store” said Surkan.

The Brain Is Miraculous News

From the Medical University of Vienna:

New investigation methods using functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT) offer insights into fetal brain development. These "in vivo" observations will uncover different stages of the brain's development. Science Daily

DELTED: This new research will also uncover numerous ways parents damage children’s brains before birth.

New research shows areas of the brain that make learning new words pleasurable:

"Results provide a neural substrate of the influence that reward and motivation circuitries may have in learning words from context," affirms Josep Marco Pallarès, UB-IDIBELL researcher. "We were running simulations of ODP using a conventional model. When we failed to reconcile Kaneko and Stryker's data to the model, we had to develop a new theoretical solution." 

DELETED:“Results also confirm reading technical, arcane jargon is also highly pleasurable.”

New study finding brains accurately judge calories even when people consciously underestimate them:

"Our study sought to determine how people's awareness of caloric content influenced the brain areas known to be implicated in evaluating food options. We found that brain activity tracked the true caloric content of foods." Dr. Alain Dagher, neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and lead author of the study.

DELETED: “This is the first solid evidence brains are smarter than their human vessels. It also suggests the irrational behavior of humans is endangering the health of their bodies and most importantly jeopardizing optimal brain functioning. Right now we're investigating the possibility of bypassing human behavior and judgement in food consumption by surgically connecting brains to the digestive track."

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Surprising Secret Truth about What Pregnant Woman Should Eat

Brace yourselves, pregnant women. No, that's not the headline from Huffington Post, Time, Yahoo, WebMD, Fox News or even Natural News, at least not this time. This high drama comes from the University of Newcastle in Australia. Obviously the university pressroom made an error. It obviously should read "Study Reveals The Surprising Truth" or "Study Reveals The Secret."

So what is the surprising, heretofore unknown food pregnant women should eat or not eat. Let me guess.

High carbs
No carbs
No dairy 
Only dairy
Soy diet
Vegan diet
Paleo diet
High fructose diet
No sugar diet
Kale diet 
No fish
No peanuts
Raw food
Cooked food
No gluten

It's killing me. Please do tell! Straight from The University of Newcastle Newsroom:

No universal consensus. 

Glut of nutritional information.

Drat. Not the kind of sensationalism I expected. I had to re-read the news release to make sure I didn't get the wrong impression. I'm still waiting to hear the surprising nutrition info. As it turned out, the only surprise was that there was no surprise, no secret super pregnancy diet anyhow. After Australian researchers reviewed more than 30 years of research on maternal diet and its effect on pregnancy, neonatal and infant outcomes - this is the only thing they could come up with to tell pregnant woman:
We found there was a positive effect on birth weight and a reduced incidence of low birth weight using whole foods and fortified foods as dietary interventions. Fortified foods included foods and drinks with higher levels of nutrients. Ellie Gresham, Dietitian and PhD candidate 
Fortified food. Whole food (not processed?). 

A paltry finding in a study that overall found maternal diet didn't really matter. In typical brain dead coverage, none of this prevented the following conclusions:

"Nutrition plays a fundamental role in fetal growth and birth outcomes." The summary of the study at The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

"Work to improve children's health should start before mother becomes pregnant." Headline,  Science Daily

The mainstream media didn't pick this one up. For once. I have to wonder if it's because the researchers didn't really find much to recommend. If it had found, say two or three more foods of interest, would the media bothered with it? Maybe. 

So here's an example of a large meta-analytic study that basically found it doesn't really matter what pregnant women eat. 

Are there other review studies that found different results. Probably. But apparently this is the largest of its kind. It might not be the best but still, it didn't make a splash in the media probably because it didn't have sensational results. Or the kind of results that persuade pregnant women to eat better. Or that health officials can use to scold women.

And thud. That's the sound of it hitting the newsroom floor in Australia before it gets swept up and put it in the trash bin. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Cure for Hyper-Parenting Platitudes?

Hyper-parenting landed atop the New York Time's Most Emailed this week. A Cure For Hyper-Parenting worked its way right past the chicken wings boomlet.The general, largely anecdotal parenting article comes from Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, now an authority on raising children. I agree with some of her ideas. And yet. There might be a cure for hyper-parenting. Someday. If we could agree what it is. Despite its significant pop-cultural appeal, as an empirical phenomenon it's not particularly well-studied, conceptualized or even defined. 

Who exactly are hyper-parents? 

American. Overwhelmingly. 
Stressed out.
Work-force drop-outs.
Emotionally distant. 
Helicopter parents.
Intensive parents.

All these terms have been slapped on so-called hyper-parents. In academic research it's been assessed in a number of ways too, pinned mostly on mommas, of course. Researcher Holly Schiffrin studies it as a mom meddling too much in her kid's life. No surprise she's found meddling moms and college-aged kids of meddling mommas are depressed. 

I had some issues with the Cure for Hyper-Parenting, mainly figuring out what specifically most of it had to do with hyper-parenting as opposed to regular parenting or how the French, the paragons of parenting, do it. Druckerman lists her solutions for preventing hyper-parenting from getting worse. The list is really her rather random general parenting recommendations (I've paraphrased unless I've used quotes):

1. Teach your kids manners. 

2. Enjoy free-time without your kids.

But I can't summarize the next one because I really don't get it:

3. "Don’t just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won’t get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it. A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome."

Carpe diem?
Chill out?
Live in the moment?
Eat donuts for dinner?
Enjoy watching your kid do homework tonight?
Don't worry about homework tonight (or if you kid does it)?
Don't mention college to your toddler?
Embrace your child's strength and weaknesses?
Lower your expectations? 
Become a Buddhist?

 4. Get enough sleep.

5. Have less stuff and keep it neat because a messy home is stressful.

(Organized, clean, neat spaces make me nervous. I can’t live like that!)

6. "Don't worry about over scheduling your child."

Madeline Levin probably disagrees.

Alvin Rosenfeld, definitely disagrees. See his The Over-scheduled Child: How to Avoid the Hyper-Parenting Trap

There has been plenty of debate over whether kids are over-scheduled, that is, suffering from too many activities.

7. Don’t sweat the perfect work-life balance.

8. Teach emotional intelligence.

9. "Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule: You can get what you want by showing people ordinary respect." 

10. "It really is just a phase. Unbearable 4-year-olds morph into tolerable 8-year-olds." 

In other words...

Well that clears up everything. Now stop it. The hyper-parenting. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

More Literacy, Pleez

In case you missed it, this summer the American Academy of Pediatrics decided pediatricians should worry more about literacy. Their June policy statement declares reading the best thing a parent can do promote healthy development (i.e. brain development). Indeed, the pediatric grand poo-bahs should worry more about literacy, beginning with their own readin' and writin'.

In fact, beginning with the very first sentence of the policy statement:

That's a long one. Let me channel my high school English teacher:

I would have ignored the above if it weren't for another more pressing matter:

As written it's not clear what builds lifetime language, literacy and social-emotional skills. The "s" on builds suggests a singular subject (reading regularly, brain development, critical time, child development?). None of the available singular subjects, though, make sense either from a theoretical or a grammatical perspective.

I assume it should read "build" instead. The authors probably meant to claim both 1) optimal patterns of brain development and 2) parent-child relationships influence the lifelong outcomes. If this is the case, then the above mess reflects either 1) a typo or 2) a grammatical error (a lapse in subject-verb agreement).

Neither possibility bodes well for an official recommendation advocating more literacy and language skills.

NOTE: I'd meant to write a post on E-Books/literacy and the question of how story-time on tablets and other screens differs from reading traditional books. The AAP literacy statement didn't take on the matter because as the policy author, Dr. Pamela Highman explained, "We tried to do a strong evidence-based policy statement on the issue of reading starting at an early age. And there isn't any data, really, on e-books."

Also, the experts will have to delicately navigate how to push the early reading recommendation (and the reality of more electronic books) with their stringent NO SCREEN TIME recommendations. I cannot wait to see how they resolve that conflict. I'm also anxious for them to tell me to limit teen screen time when my daughters spend many hours both at school and at home working on their laptops. Now that dilemma, dear readers, makes toddler story-time look like a level 1 easy reader book.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Cracking Down on Adolescent Screen Use Studies

Last week NPR featured a story about middle schoolers and their use of smart phones, tablets and other digital devices. Last week I also happened to take smart phones away from both of my middle schoolers to rectify some off-putting habits, namely ignoring me. So when I heard even a few days without screen time improved adolescent emotional skills, I envisioned my daughters skipping down the drive later that afternoon, full of new-found appreciation and empathy for each other and their mother. In the meantime, I wandered over to the study behind the claim.

Five Days at Outdoor Education Camp Without Screens Improves Preteen Skills with Nonverbal Emotion Cues

That's the title of the study. Basically kids who spent five days at camp were better at reading emotions both in facial expressions (in photographs) and social behavior (in videos).

Now I'm a huge fan of social interaction especially when I observe kids hanging out with friends in the car, the sidewalk outside school, the yogurt store or Starbucks, texting and posting while ignoring each other. No phones are permitted at the Momma Data dinner table where conversation and social interaction are encouraged even in the form of grunts and nods. I'm a social psychologist by training after all. 

But people, don't power down yet, this is hardly tight evidence. It's a basic though clever field experiment, thus a messy, loose collection of data full of possibilities and conjectures. Yes, emotional skills were measured before and after the school camping trip. That's fortunate. However the study only involved about 100 6th-graders, 51 screen-deprived (and likely sleep-deprived) campers, and 51 of their classmates left behind with televisions, computers and phones.

The real problem - it is impossible to conclude which part of the five-day field trip produced the results.

Why were kids better able to identify emotions?

Sure it could be due to more opportunities to practice reading faces. 

It could also be due to leaving home, homesickness, living in a new environment or bunking with other kids in tight quarters. It could be due to relief from the usual academic pressures, stress or drudgery. Or sleep deprivation, camp food, the fresh air, the sounds of nature, bug spray, dirt, fear of bed bugs, sleeping in a womb-like sleeping bag, campfires, roasted marshmallows, motivation to get along and win best cabin or most camp spirit (had to be). Or a break from Youtube. It could be due to all of the above or any of the above. I suspect a little of each. Take your pick. 

At least the study authors acknowledge the possibility of "increased opportunities for social interaction" - and in the title at least, the role of the outdoors though their message is clear. It's really the screens creating the problems. 

Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.

A better study would have had another 50 classmates at camp with their regular media/screen fare. Better still, add another 50 who stay at school and don't watch any screens (a nearly impossible scenario). I might propose that for the middle school trips next year. The principal should jump on that real-world learning opportunity. They could do it as a science project. The hardest part would be getting informed consent from 200 parents and getting those screens away from 50 kids stuck at home. I'd be more than happy to supervise the project from home. Just give me the word, dear principal.

As for my own middle schoolers, they didn't skip home nor did they appear any more attuned to me or my emotional state (or anyone else's) after their recent 3-day screen-free school trips. In fact my 6th-grade daughter bunked in a remote cabin and still, no observable differences unless a few comments about boys misbehaving and teachers acting weird count. Perhaps two more days would have done the trick? 

RESEARCH GEEKS:  I wonder what other measures the researchers used to assess the kids. Obviously we would have heard about them if they'd turned out significantly improved in the campers. I don't appreciate when "studies" fail to provide this relevant information. There must have been at least several other variables that didn't vary between the groups. If I'd be in charge, I'd throw in an empathy scale at the very least. 

UPDATE: This all spells a poor prognosis for online preschool. See Report: Increasing Numbers of U.S. Toddlers Attending Online Preschool (via The Onion). 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Early Puberty, Again.

Plenty of adolescent fare popped up in media this week including perennial favorites early puberty and the perils of screen time (in addition to smoking pot, depression and anorexia). I might have let these media darlings go but they kept re-appearing on my homepage and radio. I have two middle-schoolers, I could not not comment.

I especially couldn’t ignore the early puberty banter considering it came from a name I know well - Laurence Steinberg, a foremost adolescence expert and professor of psychology at Temple University - who just happened to pen an opinion piece published at CNN entitled Obesity,early puberty and why we should be concerned

The high obesity rate among very young children is worrisome for many reasons. One is that obesity causes children to go through puberty earlier. American children have been maturing at an increasingly younger age, and one of the reasons is that more youngsters are overweight.

Oh I'm concerned. Very. His central argument rests on the assumption that girls and boys are entering puberty at increasingly younger ages:

Just how much has the age of puberty fallen? At the beginning of the 20th century, the average American girl got her first period sometime between the ages of 14 and 15. Today, it is closer to 12. The first signs of puberty -- like "breast budding" -- are visible even earlier. In 1960, the average age of breast budding was 13. By the mid-1990s, it had fallen below 10.

It sounds so plausible. Unfortunately, the evidence is limited and far from conclusive, mainly because the baseline data is practically non-existence. Granted, there is better evidence for earlier breast development though this research only started in the past few decades, mostly in the US. It’s anyone’s guess how early colonial girls needed training bras. Cotton Mather didn’t mention it.

As for age at first period, the jury is still out. Those “average American girls” Steinberg refers to? I believe he's referencing a small group of northern European girls living in the rural US circa 1900 who stumbled upon a country doctor who took notes on menstruation. There is some evidence suggesting no historical shifts occurred and yes, even some suggesting increasing age of first menarche. Also note, the Tanner Scales, the current reigning medical benchmark of pubertal development (still in use today!) comes from observations of British youth living in orphanages in the 1950s and 60s, war orphans. Enough said. I’ve written about the evidence related to increasing earlier puberty before and won’t get into it here.

The obesity claim. Yes there is some evidence but it is mixed. Even news-ish sources like WebMD, the fine purveyor of medical knowledge, don't pretend obesity is the single, overwhelmingly most important factor of early puberty. Fortunately someone there decided to list at least a few other potential risk factors like ethnicity and international adoption.

Oh Steinberg does mention a few others:

The high rate of childhood obesity over the past 40 years is not the only reason our children are maturing earlier sexually. Children's exposure to chemicals called "endocrine disruptors" -- substances found in foods and in many consumer products, from plastics to cosmetics that throw off normal hormonal functioning -- is probably playing a role.

There is also speculation that increased exposure to light—including artificial light emitted by computers, tablets, and smartphones—may be a contributor. CNN

So the esteemed psychologist mentions not the familial or socio-cultural factors linked to earlier puberty, the ones studied for decades and decades, but targets plastics and artificial light. Does anyone else find this slightly odd? 

He ignores in this article hereditary factors, family discord, absence of a father and other chronic social stressors linked to earlier puberty. So light from tv might cause girls to sprout breasts but not living with chronic stress. Light bad, elevated cortisol levels, okay? For love of PMS, he edited the first volume of The Handbook of Adolescent Psychology published in 2009. The chapter on puberty addresses the issue of earlier onset of puberty including many risk factors.

To speak of obesity as if it is definitely driving youth into puberty earlier than ever does not fit the facts. To speak of it as a done deal is not accurate. So of course I was curious why Steinberg latched on to obesity and earlier puberty. Frankly I'm still not clear but he took to the media (including NPR) to promote his new book:
In Age of Opportunity, Steinberg leads readers through a host of new findings — including groundbreaking original research — that reveal what the new timetable of adolescence means for parenting 13-year-olds (who may look more mature than they really are) versus 20-somethings (who may not be floundering even when it looks like they are). He also explains how the plasticity of the adolescent brain, rivaling that of years 0 through 3, suggests new strategies for instilling self-control during the teenage years. Packed with useful knowledge, Age of Opportunity is a sweeping book in the tradition of Reviving Ophelia, and an essential guide for parents and educators of teenagers. Amazon.

That small paragraph is remarkable.

New timetable of adolescence

Plasticity of the adolescent brain...

…rivaling that of years 0 to 3

Reviving Ophelia

Translation: Parents, don’t relax now. You have one more chance in adolescence to mess up your child for good. 

The book received rave reviews from big names in and out of academia. Martin Seligman, yes that guy (positive psychology etc. etc.), called it "simply the best book I have ever read on adolescence." Carol Dweck (praise effort not ability or intelligence) and Angela Duckworth (grit) loved it. As did my fave Madeline Levine (Teach Your Children Well). Jennifer Senior too (All Joy and No Fun), now that she's a parenting expert. 

But I still don’t see why all the fuss about obesity and puberty. Maybe nutrition is Steinberg’s side project. Maybe he is fixated on childhood obesity. Maybe he's been invited to Michelle Obama's vegetable garden. Maybe this is an excerpt from the book (I hope not). Does he feel the need to convince parents that kids are developing earlier so they (we) have more time to worry? I haven't read it yet, it will arrive on my doorstep tomorrow.

In any event it doesn’t justify the use of shoddy historical data or misrepresenting the so-called “causes” of early puberty. 

This mess certainly doesn't help this parent of two adolescents who is trying to navigate the complexities of screen time, homework-related screen usage, the screen-related social demands of adolescence or the new school requirement that each middle schooler bring a very expensive, fragile, highly addicting laptop to school every day. 

Oh well, there goes my Visiting Fellowship at Temple University. 

Next up: Save some of your screen time for adolescence and screen time/media use.

Correction: Steinberg edited the first volume of the Handbook of Adolescent Psychology not Social Psychology, the latter hefty tome sits collecting dust in my office. My bad. 

Update: Laurence Steinberg wrote to say that he did cover the many other factors involved in early puberty in the book, in fact, he was the first to publish evidence showing a relationship between adolescent-parent conflict and earlier puberty. He also noted the tight word limit. Indeed, readers here are all too familiar with the constraints of the new media including not enough space for the finer details and nuance.