Five Stubborn Beliefs about Kids that Don't Make the Grade

In honor of students beginning summer vacation, here are five frequently repeated myths about kids and why they are (to use a term from my school days) “totally bogus.”

1.  Hormones in milk cause early puberty. While it’s true that the dairy industry shoots up cows with bovine growth hormone, and in some cases synthetic growth hormone, there is no credible evidence that either catalyzes early puberty in human children.  The dairy industry has used natural bovine growth hormone for decades, far before this claim started being made. The FDA tests milk from cows pumped up with natural bovine hormone and synthetic hormone and has concluded that the end product is exactly the same.

In addition, most of the hormones are destroyed during pasteurization.  Whatever is left is broken down in stomach acid—though it wouldn’t matter even if this were not true because bovine growth hormone is species specific.  Why, then, have girls since the early 1980s been reaching puberty sooner?  Nobody knows for certain, but blaming it on milk doesn’t stand the evidence test.

2.  Television causes childhood ADHD.  Television has always been an easy target for those trying to pin the wrongs of society on an available villain. When the modern diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder started picking up steam, television was immediately targeted as the culprit behind this “new” diagnosis. (It’s not new at all. The first diagnosis was made by a doctor in 1902, but back then it was called “Defect Moral Control Disorder.” His diagnosis focused on behavior in children that was “aggressive, defiant, resistant to discipline, excessively emotional , and passionate.”  How much TV were they watching in 1902, I wonder?)

The more recent ADHD argument—spawned in the 1990s amidst an explosion of funding to study the disorder—got a boost from a 2004 study claiming that children diagnosed with ADHD at age 7 watched more TV at an earlier age than those who watched less (accompanied by a melodramatic claim by one of the researchers that “TV rewires children’s brains”).  A New Zealand study in 2007 showed a similar link.

Both of these studies, and others using the same methodology, suffer from several fatal flaws: (1) they attempt to correlate TV viewing and ADHD diagnosis in one direction (TV=ADHD), while ignoring the very real possibility that kids genetically predisposed to ADHD tend to watch more TV; (2) they rely on parental reporting of their kids’ TV viewing habits, a notoriously inaccurate way of gathering data; (3) they cannot effectively isolate TV viewing from other variables that may or may not underlie an ADHD diagnosis—among them, genetic predisposition; and (4) correlation is not causation, and this warning should especially be heeded when it comes to complex multi-variable analysis that makes even correlation difficult to demonstrate.

If ADHD is increasing in children, what’s the cause? Nobody knows for certain, and since the debate about ADHD diagnosis itself is anything but settled it’s not even clear what the parameters of the investigation should look like.  We also don’t know why asthma rates among children are increasing or, as discussed above, why girls are reaching puberty earlier—but TV likely isn’t to blame for those issues, either.

3.  Youth violence is increasing because kids are playing violent video games. This is an easy one to dismantle because there really isn’t a shred of evidence supporting it.  Youth violence has actually been steadily decreasing since the early 1990s. Between 1994 and 2004, all violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles fell by an average of 49 %, the lowest level since 1980. Murder arrests in particular dropped 70%. Since the majority of violent games have hit the market in the last 15-20 years or so, if anything the correlation is between more violent game play and less juvenile violence.

4. Kids are becoming more self-centered and apathetic. Totally false.  The trend is going in the exact opposite direction. High school kids today are far more likely to volunteer their time to nonprofit causes than kids 20 years ago.  80% of today’s high school students participate in civic volunteer activities, up from around 30% in 1990. More here.

5. Kids are growing up faster these days. Not really. The speed of media and communications is much faster, but the kids using these technologies aren’t being forced to experience the stresses of adulthood any faster than kids a half century ago. If anything, kids now might be growing up slower—if your definition of “growing up” includes rough and tumble self sufficiency.  That’s not a slight against kids at all, just an observation that kids in the U.S. today are not working in sweat shops, or picketing for fairer child labor laws, or taking care of the family farm.  The childhood “cushion” of today is comparatively well in place.

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4 thoughts on “Five Stubborn Beliefs about Kids that Don't Make the Grade

  1. You are so on target.

    I am a physician and I can tell you that the hormones in milk thing is absolutely a myth. Personally, my own gut instinct is that early puberty is happening because kids are getting bigger, earlier. The reason?? Calories. We are missing the forest for the trees. The biggest change in the human diet over the past century or two is that massive numbers of people have access to concentrated calories in the form of junk food. Not only do we have access to these foods, but they are advertised to us (and our kids) on a daily basis. We see them everywhere. We are pretty much saturated with them. More calories = more fat = higher hormone levels = early puberty.

    The other myths that you mention are interesting as well. The one caveat I have is that I think that, while people are getting more empathetic, we are also becoming more materialistic. I think that tempers the empathy a little bit.

  2. I don’t think the rise in volunteering among high school students is proof of a lack of self-centeredness; kids planning on applying to college are trying to rack up points for applications. I’m not far enough removed from high school to forget about all my friends scrambling to get service hours signed off on for whatever honors organization they were a part of. If asked why they were going to such great lengths to volunteer their time, the resounding answer was not “I just feel obligated to serve out of the goodness of my heart.” It was more along the lines of “well, this looks good on a college application.” I’m not saying this necessarily negates your argument; my experience would just say that this particular trend doesn’t prove your point.

  3. Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility has been intensively studying the science of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST or rBGH)for the past seven years.

    We agree there isn’t any conclusive evidence that rBGH is contributing to premature puberty, although it’s possible.

    However, we strongly recommend consuming only rBGH-free dairy products. rBGH increases disease rates in cows, may increase cancer in humans and can’t help but increase antibiotic resistance. This hormone increases levels of another growth hormone that is not destroyed by pasteurization and, because of the presence of casein, is not destroyed in digestion.

    For more information, see our website at http://www.oregonpsr.org and look under Campaign For Safe Food.

    Rick North, Project Director – Campaign For Safe Food, Oregon Physicans for Social Responsibility

  4. In 1950, the average twelve-year old Japanese girl was 4’6″ tall and weighed 71 pounds. By 1975, the average Japanese girl, after changing her diet to include milk and dairy products containing 59 different bioactive hormones, had grown an average of 4 1/2 inches and gained 19 pounds. In 1950, the average Japanese girl had her first menstrual cycle at the age of 15.2 years. Twenty five years later, after a daily intake of estrogen and progesterone from milk, the average Japanese girl was ovulating at the age of 12.2 years, three years younger. Never before had such a dramatic dietary change been seen in such a unique population study.

    well when someones 5 yr old daughter goes through puberty maybe thats when someone will think into the milk think more!!

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