Thursday, June 18, 2009

Elevating a Debate From Comments...

I'm having a bit of a debate with  reader MoralHazard in comments over my last post on the misleading headline. MoralHazard contends that the scientific evidence backs the Penn State Propaganda Portal's characterizations of the impact of parental tolerance of alcohol consumption by a child while they are living at home and that child's propensity to binge drink in college. I disagree, but I do think I should have been more careful in making my case. So here goes.....

I'll begin with the literature and then look at how it is characterized by the Propaganda Portal. In addition to the research by Caitlin Abar, Beau Abar, and Rob Turrisi, which is the main focus of the Propaganda Portal piece, two other studies are mentioned, one by Kristie Long Foley, D. Altman, R. Durant, and M. Wolfson and another by Kelli Komro, et. al.

MoralHarzard also cited a fourth study done in Sweden by Nicholos Koutakis, Haken Stattin and Margret Kerr.

Do these studies either individually or taken together support the assertion of the Old Main Propaganda Shop concerning college age binge drinking?

Here's what Komro et. al. found.
Student report, at age 12, of parental provision of alcohol and home alcohol availability, and parental report of providing alcohol to their child and the accessibility of alcohol in the home, were associated with significant increases in the trajectories of young adolescent alcohol use and intentions from ages 12-14 years. Student report of receiving alcohol from their parent or taking it from home during their last drinking occasion were the most robust predictors of increases in alcohol use and intentions over time.
There's a whole lot of hedging going on. Note that no distinction  is made as a predictor between "parental provision" and "home alcohol availability", nor was any distinction made between "alcohol use" and "intention" as a response. So on the one hand, having alcohol setting  around the house could cause a kid to plan on drinking or a parent giving a kid alcohol could result in the kid drinking alcohol. Or one of the other two combinations my be at play. This is just about worthless. And further, it has nothing to do with binge drinking in college.

The Swedish study divided a group of 7th grade students (~13 years-old) into a control and treatment groups. Both groups were asked about their alcohol use. The the parents of the treatment group followed a program of conveying disapproval of drinking to their children. The control was not instructed to alter its behavior in anyway. The groups were followed for two years and surveyed again. It was found that alcohol use increased in both groups with time, but at a lower rate in the treatment group. The obvious flaw is that children who have been indoctrinated against alcohol use are likely to under report its use when surveyed. And once again this has nothing to do with binge drinking in college.

The Foley, et. al. study found that a child whose parents allowed them to drink unsupervised in high school was more likely to binge drink in college. It also found that a child who was allowed to drink with the family was less likely to binge drink in college.

The Abar, et. al. study didn't distinguish the social context in which parents allowed their children to drink and found that parental tolerance of a child's alcohol use in high school is associated with a higher likelihood of binge drinking in college.

Only the Foley, et. al. and Anbar et. al studies have any relevance to binge drinking in college.

Let's look at that Propaganda Portal piece once more. The headline, "Zero tolerance alcohol policy good choice for parents," ignores the Foley, et. al. finding that when children drink with family they are less likely to binge drink. Further, the Anbar, et al. study found that "the greater number of drinks that a parent had set as a limit for the teens, the more often they drank and got drunk in college," which suggest that there may be some safe, nonzero lower limit for the amount a child is permited to drink.

Then there's the lede.
Restaurants in Germany legally sell alcohol to teenagers after their 16th birthdays and French children drink wine with dinner at an early age, but U.S. parents who follow this relaxed European example, believing it fosters a healthier attitude toward alcohol, should be careful — it may increase the likelihood that their children binge drink in college.
This is in direct contradiction to the Foley, et. al.  finding, which is that the relaxed European example of drinking with family reduces the likelihood of binge drinking. The Anbar, et. al.  study does not contradict the earlier study, since it doesn't account for social context.

Finally, there is this point, "there is no scientific basis to the common belief that prohibiting alcohol turns it into a 'forbidden fruit' and encourages abuse." What's the point,that there is no downside to zero tolerance? That can't be it, since the Foley, et al. study showed a positive effect for allowing alcohol consumption in a family setting on binge drinking.

Look, I'll admit this is a difficult problem and I'm not certain that Foley, et. al. is correct or that Anbar, et. al. is wrong. I consider the whole thing to be an open question right now, which is certainly deserving of more study. What bothers me is the Old Main Propaganda Shop trying to spin these preliminary findings to serve their own agenda.

So MoralHazard, what do you think? The comment section can feel a bit cramped. If you'd like to respond more fully email me and I put your response up as a post.

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moralhazrd said...

Please, veblen. You're better than this.

"This is in direct contradiction to the Foley, et. al. finding, which is that the relaxed European example of drinking with family reduces the likelihood of binge drinking."

COMPARED TO WHAT??? It reduces the likelihood of binge drinking compared to providing alcohol for teenagers to drink in an unsupervised setting.

The lead in the Penn State article is certainly not in direct contradiction to the finding from this study. The study makes a different comparison--not between zero tolerance and family drinking, but between family drinking and unsupervised drinking.

I really don't wish to engage in a significant extension of the discussion, because my point is that you're spending too much time on it already. The PSU article certainly pushes beyond what the literature shows--although in a way that is actually more consistent with the evidence than the way you try to push the literature. But, this is not unlike about 95% of the psuedo-science/health writing in the usual newspaper.

There are many things to legitimately criticize, and my point is that yanking the chain over this is silly.

Veblen said...

It reduces the likelihood of binge drinking compared to providing alcohol for teenagers to drink in an unsupervised setting.
You're right this isn't worth spending too much time on. However, I was wondering if you have a copy of the Foley paper. It's not clear from the abstract what exactly they have found.
Perceived consequences, parent and adult relative provision of alcohol, and drinking with a parent were protective of underage drinking. Providing alcohol at a party, however, was associated with a two-fold increase in past 30-day use and binge drinking. There were minimal differences on adults' approval across the three racial/ethnic groups.
That certainly makes it sound like drinking with family reduces alcohol abuse relative to the base case of children who are not provided any alcohol by family. The Propaganda Portal is not any less ambiguous on this.

Anyway, a look at he paper would clear this up.

moralhazrd said...

ScienceDirect's down, so there's no access to it now, but I seriously doubt looking at the paper would clear anything up, based on a look at some papers citing it. Essentially all the work appears to be based on self-reports by adolescents in cross-sectional surveys. The measurement and causal issues would taint any association found, imo.