Click the article title to be taken to the full story.
The emotional and sexual abuse that some children endure can lead them to commit crimes later in life.
But when children achieve good grades and don't skip school, the likelihood of self-reported, chronic criminal behaviors declines significantly, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Washington.
This new ongoing study is one of the few in the nation to follow the same individuals over several decades to learn about how child maltreatment – described as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as neglect – impacts development and how some are resilient.
"Child abuse is a risk factor for later antisocial behavior," said study co-author Todd Herrenkohl, the Marion Elizabeth Blue Professor of Child and Family at the U-M School of Social Work. "Education and academic achievement can lessen the risk of crime for all youth, including those who have been abused (encountered stress and adversity)."
In addition to crime/antisocial behavior, the researchers also investigated effects on physical and mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, intergenerational transmission of violence, and socioeconomic disadvantage.
Previous studies about child maltreatment have not distinguished youth and adult chronic offenders from non-offenders and those who perpetrate antisocial behavior in adolescence only, who are called desisters.
"Given that offending in adolescence can persist into adulthood if left unaddressed, it is important to identify and act on factors that predispose individuals to ongoing patterns of antisocial behavior," said Hyunzee Jung, the study's lead author and a U-W researcher.
Data involved 356 people from childhood (ages 18 months to 6 years) in 1976-1977, school-age (8 years) in 1980-1982, adolescent (18 years) in 1990-1992 and adulthood (36 years) in 2010.
Parent reports, self-reports – which included crime/antisocial behavior – and parent-child interactions measured various types of abuse and neglect, and responses also factored educational experiences and criminal behavior against others or property.
The abuse led to people more likely to commit crimes, but this was not the case for those who had been neglected in their early years, the study shows.
Successful school experiences kept teens from both committing crimes and having antisocial behaviors. But for youths suspended in grades 7 to 9, the chronic offending habits and antisocial behaviors continued later in life, the researchers said.
Herrenkohl said the primary prevention of child abuse is a critical first step to reducing antisocial behavior at the transition from adolescence into adulthood.
"Strategies focused on helping school professionals become aware of the impacts of child abuse and neglect are critical to building supportive environments that promote resilience and lessen risk for antisocial behavior," he said.
The study, whose other authors are U-W researchers Martie Skinner and Ashley Rousson, appears in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
14 March 2018
University of Michigan
A new neuroscience study finds that back-and-forth conversation is related to brain activity and verbal aptitude
More than 20 years ago, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered what they called the “30 million word gap.” Through family visits, they estimated that children under 4 from lower-income families heard a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families. That study was embraced by Hillary Clinton and it spurred a White House conference on the topic, public service announcement campaigns, and the creation of at least two outreach organizations. The clear message: talk to your babies a lot.
But now a team of scientists from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania is questioning whether the quantity of words matters much at all. A study they published last month in the journal Psychological Science found that young 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds who engaged in more conversation at home had more brain activity while they were listening to a story and processing language.
“What we found is that the sheer amount of language, the number of adult words, was not related to brain activation or verbal skills,” said Rachel Romeo, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at a joint Harvard and MIT program. “But what was related, strongly related, was the amount of back-and-forth conversation between children and adults. We think this research finding suggests, instead of talking at or to your child, you really need to talk with your child to have meaningful brain development and language development.”
Romeo’s hypothesis is that back-and-forth conversation might actually rewire the brain and cause it to grow. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. But that needs to be tested in a future study that Romeo is planning. All this initial research showed was that kids in the study who experienced more conversation at home had greater brain activity and verbal aptitude. We don’t know yet if conversation is really causing those changes in brain development and verbal skill.
In the study, the benefits of conversation were just as strong for low-income children as they were for high-income children. Children who experienced high amounts of conversation scored 12 percent higher on standardized language assessments.
But low-income children tended to experience far less conversation at home, the study documented. Researchers compared a peak hour of conversation for each child. A child in a high-income household had 50 more conversational turns in a single hour than a child in a low-income household. A turn is when an adult speaks and the child responds, or vice versa. A single turn could be as short as this: “Eat.” “No!”
The implications of this study are important. Many programs targeted at low-income mothers have emphasized the importance of talking to babies from birth through 3 years old. “Some parents or even educators interpret this to mean, just get the words in, it doesn’t matter how, what, or where, just talk, talk, talk,” said Romeo. “It’s not that the amount doesn’t matter. But the engagement, the social exchange, is what seems to be important.”
To be sure, Hart and Risley’s 30-million-word-gap study never made the point that only quantity was important. They also wrote about the importance of exposing babies to a range of vocabulary and offering more positive, encouraging feedback than negative prohibitions.
Romeo advises parents to ask questions and wait for responses instead of just rattling off shopping lists or narrating the day. Admittedly, engaging in intellectual discourse with a 6-month-old is a challenge. With infants, Romeo suggests exchanging coos or silly faces. For many parents, that might be easier than sustaining an hour of narration.
Conducting a monologue may be annoying (to me, at least) but it certainly isn’t harmful. Romeo suspects that the parents who do it are also incidentally engaging in back-and-forth conversation and exposing their children to a lot of vocabulary and grammatical complexity. And that might explain why the parents who talk more tend to produce more verbally skilled children.
Romeo and her colleagues began their study in an MIT laboratory where 36 Boston-area children, ages 4 to 6, were tested to measure their verbal and reasoning skills. Then, each kid entered a brain scanner, which produced MRI images of brain activity while the child listened to audio stories. Afterward, families were sent home with a lightweight digital voice recorder that could fit in the child’s pocket and were told to turn it on during the child’s waking hours for an entire weekend. Algorithms analyzed the recordings, counting words spoken by adults and conversational turns. The algorithms were able to discern real, live human voices and discard words that the child heard from the television or other devices. If the recorder picked up a caretaker talking on the cellphone, that would be categorized as adult speech and the words counted.
Finally, the researchers compared the children’s test scores and brain images in the laboratory with the audio patterns at home. They found for every 11 conversational turns, a child’s verbal test score increased by one point. And they saw that the part of the brain involved in language processing lit up more for children who had experienced more conversation at home. The researchers saw no such connections for the number of words spoken.
This is only a small study and it needs to be replicated. We will need more studies to prove that conversation is the key to language development in the brain. But this neuroscience study confirms 2009 research from psychologists who weren’t conducting brain scans, and were beginning to discern what kinds of language exposure in early childhood are most important. I was also surprised to learn, in the process of researching this piece, that Hart’s and Risley’s landmark study wasn’t much larger than this one, tracking only 42 kids. It shows how a small study can have a huge impact.
12 March 2018
By Jill Barshay
A new study of dysfunctional use of smart technology finds that the most addictive smartphone functions all share a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people. The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggest that smartphone addiction could be hyper-social, not anti-social.
"There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic," says Professor Samuel Veissière, from the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, Canada. "We're trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive – and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this."
We all know people who, seemingly incapable of living without the bright screen of their phone for more than a few minutes, are constantly texting and checking out what friends are up to on social media.
These are examples of what many consider to be the antisocial behavior brought on by smartphone addiction, a phenomenon that has garnered media attention in the past few months and led investors and consumers to demand that tech giants address this problem.
But what if we were looking at things the wrong way? Could smartphone addiction be hyper-social, not anti-social?
Professor Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture, explains that the desire to watch and monitor others – but also to be seen and monitored by others – runs deep in our evolutionary past. Humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behavior. This is also a way for them to find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity.
Together with Moriah Stendel, also from McGill's Department of Psychiatry, Professor Veissière reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens. The researchers found that the most addictive smartphone functions all shared a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people.
Healthy urges can become unhealthy addictions
While smartphones harness a normal and healthy need for sociality, Professor Veissière agrees that the pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushes the brain's reward system to run on overdrive, which can lead to unhealthy addictions.
"In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (...) the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring," the authors write in their paper.
Turning off push notifications and setting up appropriate times to check your phone can go a long way to regain control over smartphone addiction. Research suggests that workplace policies "that prohibit evening and weekend emails" are also important.
"Rather than start regulating the tech companies or the use of these devices, we need to start having a conversation about the appropriate way to use smartphones," concludes Professor Veissière. "Parents and teachers need to be made aware of how important this is."
"There can be so much disappointment and loneliness because we are encouraged to aspire and have ambitions – and then what happens when we fail? Maybe exam results aren't good enough. The ideal you've been built up for – like being a footballer, being a doctor – doesn't happen."
This 20-year-old woman, interviewed for a study on youth loneliness, captures the sense of pressure and isolation many young people say they feel.
The research, by Manchester Metropolitan University and the young person's mental health charity 42nd Street, suggests youngsters often feel isolated and lonely when they fail to live up to expectations.
The youth-led research project – which specifically recruited young researchers aged 14 to 25 to interview 140 youngsters from a diverse range of backgrounds – found a range of issues increased levels of youth loneliness, particularly:
The report – Loneliness Connects Us – says that "loneliness itself is often a source of shame and stigma in a world which seems to require the performance of happiness and success".
'I still feel very lonely'
The 20-year-old woman interviewed said: "Old connections are broken. Who do you turn to? Not your family because you don't want to add to their sense of disappointment. Online, happiness is compulsory. Looking happy online with a drink in your hand. You can't say, 'This is really hard, and I'm missing you.'
"And sometimes, even when I've now done everything I was meant to do, and I've succeeded in school and pleased my family and gone to uni, and I still feel very unhappy and lonely… what now?"
A recurring theme in the research was the loneliness that stems from a fear of disappointing those who have invested their hopes in a young person, if the path of education or career "success" is not sustained.
A 21-year-old man said: "If you asked me what represents my feeling of loneliness most, it's when I've been in all weekend on my own and there's leftover pizza in the fridge at the end of the weekend, because I've ordered a pizza but I can't eat it all. "I came here to go to university, but it didn't work out. I've left home and don't want to go back to the country town I come from, but I'm new here. Anyway, I've lost contact with my school friends.
"I don't have a steady job. I get bits and pieces as a freelancer. But at the moment I'm working at a call centre, where I have to put up with a lot of rudeness. "It's all turned out so much harder than I expected, and I'm not making much money. I feel a failure at times, and I don't want my parents to know."
And a 23-year-old man told researchers: "I used to think that when I'm 30 I'll have the Mondeo, the house and all that stuff. But I'm getting older and I still don't know if I'll get that.
"I don't know what I'm doing yet. I don't have a career. I'm trying to find my path… I get anxiety about not spending my time wisely, not getting ahead. Why am I not building, being productive? Why I'm not getting on?"
The study found that social media "presented a continued pressure to communicate oneself in a particular way, as leading an interesting and enviable life".
A 21-year-old woman told researchers: "Social media is social pressure… people posting fake happiness. That has to be one of the loneliest places, with so much inner unhappiness and faking it online. So all your connections are based on falseness."
The report says: "Young people's exposure in schools to messages of empowerment, hard work, aspiration and resilience and the need to stand on their own two feet and look to themselves alone needs questioning.
"It has been clear throughout this period of research how powerful media discourses circulate that frame success and failure in achieving one's aspirations of wealth and happiness in terms of individual's effort rather than reflecting more complex classed and gendered explanations."
Dr James Duggan, research fellow at MMU's school of childhood, youth and education studies, said discussions about loneliness in the past had tended to focus on older people.
"But there's an emerging debate on youth loneliness and we wanted to make sense of it and put young people's voices at the centre of those discussions.
"Young people should take practical and political action, and we're encouraging them to put loneliness on the agenda of youth politics."
By Katherine Sellgren
9 March 2018
Whatever their foibles – door-slamming, grunting, excessive Snapchatting – teenagers are right about one thing: nobody understands them. This umbra of non-comprehension takes in not just parents, but doctors, psychologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, legal experts and educators.
There is surprisingly scant scientific research about the hazy period between childhood and adulthood in which adolescents exist. As an editorial in the journal Nature pointed out this month: “A modern healthcare system without a focus on the unique challenges of paediatrics or geriatrics would be unthinkable, yet there is no similar effort on behalf of adolescents.”
This is despite the fact that 10-24-year-olds now constitute a record quarter of the global population.
The term adolescence stems from the Latin adolescere, meaning “to grow up” but, in many other contexts, it eludes easy definition. The World Health Organization puts adolescence between the ages of 10 and 19, with other categories jostling within that complex territory. The UN defines a youth as aged 15-24, a genre overlapping with “child” (under 18) and the generic “young people” (10-24).
It should not surprise us, then, that there is great variation the world over – and even within countries – in the ages at which the young are entrusted with making adult decisions. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, writes: “A society that tries 12-year-olds who commit serious crimes as adults because they’re mature enough to ‘know better’ but prohibits 20-year-olds from buying alcohol because they are too immature to handle it, is deeply confused about how to treat people in this age range.”
Biology provides an obvious pointer. Adolescence is thought to begin with the onset of puberty (sexual development), but patterns of puberty vary around the world – and within countries – over time. One study shows that in the mid-19th century, girls in developed countries had their first period at about 15 or 16 years old. By 2000, this had dropped to below 13, a trend that has been attributed to better nutrition and healthcare. Puberty also occurs earlier in boys. Childhood obesity is thought to be an accelerating factor.
Flowering bodies, however, are governed by childish brains. Prof Steinberg points out that the young brain continues maturing into the mid-20s. Neurodevelopmental changes depend partly on hormones and can drive pleasure-seeking, risky and impulsive behaviour. Accordingly, Professor Steinberg extends adolescence’s dominion to between the ages of 10 and 25.
By then, of course, young people are already notching up the social milestones of adulthood: driving, voting, working, living independently, enlisting in the military, drinking, buying guns, marrying and becoming parents. Society will have long sexualised them. And for the digitally connected, the mis-steps of youth are today captured, shared and archived in perpetuity. That collision of adolescent brains with adult norms might underlie some of the darker statistics relating to young people. The leading causes of adolescent death are, respectively, road accidents, HIV and suicide.
Adolescent health also deserves specific contemplation because the habits of youth can become the millstones of adulthood: teens who smoke cannabis or nicotine, or who abuse alcohol, often become hooked for life. Mental health issues tend to surface early in adulthood but afflicted adolescents are mostly diagnosed on the basis of adult criteria and treated with drugs intended for older patients. When it comes to understanding adolescents, it is adults who need to grow up.
By Anjana Ahuja
5 March 2018
A recent study looked into the long-term effects of watching too much television as a toddler. Somewhat surprisingly, the impact could be measured in the children's dietary habits, weight, and behavior as teenagers.
Paradoxically, in this fast-paced modern world we live in, humans are more and more inclined to sit for long periods of time staring at screens. This shift in habits is considered by many to have a negative impact on our children.
Though most parents try to limit the amount of screen time that their children have, the ever-growing number of screens per household is making it more and more challenging.
For instance, around 1 in 3 infants in the United States have a television in their bedroom, and nearly half of all children watch television or DVDs for almost 2 hours each day.
Screen time and negative outcomes
Evidence is mounting that screen time has a negative impact on children as they develop. Because watching TV is sedentary both physically and mentally, connectivity may be disturbed in the rapidly developing toddler brain. Also, it has the potential to set up negative habits for later life – choosing easier, less demanding activities over physically or mentally challenging pastimes, for example.
Studies have revealed that increased screen time for toddlers and kindergarten children increases the risk of having a higher body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference as they enter the first grade. Other studies have found that waist circumference and physical fitness are adversely impacted as children enter fourth grade.
Off the back of these findings, in October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics reduced the guidelines for television viewing in children aged 2–5 years to no more than 1 hour per day.
Although there is little debate that excess television viewing has unfavorable health consequences, the impact of early TV viewing on behavior as the child enters their teens is less known. It was this direction that a team of Canadian researchers recently took. In particular, they were interested in lifestyle outcomes, such as school performance and dietary choices.
The researchers were led by Prof. Linda Pagani and graduate student Isabelle Simonato, from the School of Psychoeducation at the Université de Montréal in Canada. They took data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development.
Early TV viewing's effect on teens
In total, almost 2,000 boys and girls born in Quebec in 1997–1998 were involved in the study. The children had been followed from the age of 5 months.
Parents reported TV habits as they grew, then, when the children reached the age of 13, they self-reported dietary habits and behavior at school. Prof. Pagani explains why this study is particularly useful, saying, "Not much is known about how excessive screen exposure in early childhood relates to lifestyle choices in adolescence."
"This birth cohort is ideal, because the children were born before smartphones and tablets, and before any pediatric viewing guidelines were publicized for parents to follow. They were raising their children with TV and seeing it as harmless. This makes our study very naturalistic, with no outside guidelines or interference – a huge advantage."
As expected, there were measurable effects of increased TV time on habits as the children entered their teenage years. The team's results were published earlier this month in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Each additional hour of TV viewing at the age of 2 predicted significantly worse eating habits at the age of 13. They consumed more prepared meats and cold cuts, French fries, white bread, soft and fruit-flavored drinks, sports and energy drinks, sweet or salty snacks, and desserts.
Toddlers who watched more TV were more likely to skip breakfast on school days as a 13-year-old.
Also, these children were less likely to make an effort in their first year of high school, which had an adverse effect on performance and ambition. As a 2-year-old, each additional hour spent watching television per day predicted a 10 percent increase in BMI at age 13.
How does TV have such an effect?
Simonato believes that it is the sedentary nature of TV watching that might be to blame for some of the findings. She explains, "We hypothesized that when toddlers watch too much TV it encourages them to be sedentary, and if they learn to prefer effortless leisure activities at a very young age, they likely won't think much of non-leisure ones, like school, when they're older."
"For our society," continues Prof. Pagani, "that means a bigger healthcare burden associated with obesity and lack of cardiovascular fitness.
The strength of this study lies in the depth of the data. Because the team had access to a myriad of information on the family lives of the children, they could control for other factors that might have played a role, such as socioeconomic parameters and psychological factors.
They were even able to remove the influence of screen time habits at the age of 13, enabling them to get a clear picture of the effects of watching TV as a toddler.
Prof. Pagani offers some insight into the way that parents use screens as a tool when other forms of interaction might be beneficial. She explains, "In preschool, parents use screen time as a reward and as a distraction. They establish quiet 'idling' at a teachable moment when children could actually be learning self-control."
"Using distraction," she adds, "as a reward to help children behave in situations where they should be learning self-control sets them on a trajectory where they will seek out distraction when faced with demands for cognitive effort.
"Rewarding distraction and low mental effort though entertainment will later influence a young person's commitment to school and perseverance in their studies."
The researchers agree with the recommendations set out by the American Academy of Pediatrics: reducing screen time to no more than 1 hour each day for 2–5-year-olds is the best advice.
The study authors believe that this will "ensure healthy developmental trajectories in adolescence."
By Tim Newman
27 February 2018
With everyday’s news on technological advancement, artificial intelligence, robotic breakthroughs, and futuristic inventions, a group of UK experts warned that technology can actually be harmful for children’s development. Senior paediatric doctors observed that overuse of touchscreen gadgets obstruct the development of children’s finger muscles, hence resulted in improper holding of pens when writing.
The experts observed that children nowadays were unable to hold pencils correctly. Sally Payne, head pediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust explained that children’s dexterity had evolved for the worse as compared to 10 years ago. Children these days lacked fundamental skills needed to correctly grip a pencil and she blamed it on gadgets use.
“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil,” she said.
Mellisa Prunty, a children’s handwriting specialist, echoed the same observation and raised concern about the growing number of children with similar problems. Barbie Clarke, a child psychotherapist and founder of the Family Kids and Youth research agency, added that nursery schools were also voicing out the same concerns about overuse of technology among kids today.
This is the same concern put forth by Karin Bishop, an assistant director at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists. “[While] there are many positive aspects to the use of technology, there is growing evidence on the impact of more sedentary lifestyles and increasing virtual social interaction, as children spend more time indoors online and less time physically participating in active occupations.”
There had been many studies and reports conveying the harmful effects of gadgets on children. However, what these experts seemed to be missing to highlight is that gadgets only became villains due to overuse.
There was a study which showed that excessive gadgets use caused speech delays for children. There had also been one study saying that increased suicide rates among teens can be linked to too much social media use.
Lucas, a father of a two-year-old girl, has allowed his kid to use gadgets not more than two hours a day. The videos that she watched are pre-downloaded and strictly screened by Lucas and his wife. They made sure they are educational and age-appropriate. For the rest of the day, he made sure that his daughter will go out and play and engage in more physical activities.
Lucas told Health Aim that he doesn’t agree about completely denying kids’ access to gadgets.”
“Their generation should develop skills with how the technology is evolving. With all the inventions today, we don’t know what kind of relevant technology and gadgets they will be operating tomorrow. The best I think is to allow kids to play with gadgets, to feel at ease with technology but be on guard and always set restrictions.”
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had the same opinion on gadgets use. In 2001, Gates revealed that he restricted screen time when his daughter started showing addiction to a video game. His children didn’t have cell phones until the age of 14.
Jobs imposed the same rules on his children. In 2011, he said that they limit how much technology their kids were using at home.
By Amy Woods
27 February 2018