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Monday, January 29, 2018

Fake News (Tweets) and CBC Ontario Morning

Donald Trump likes to call the mainstream media "fake news." He's wrong but that doesn't mean the MSM can ignore his charge. Those in the media must take those words to heart and attempt to never lend any credence to Trump's accusation.

Sadly, almost all of us have had a contact with the media that went poorly. I have often met folk who have told me that a story with which they were closely associated was reported incorrectly. They may have even talked directly to the reporter behind the story. By the time the reporter condensed the story to a sound bite for television or radio, or boiled the information down to an eight-inch story in the daily paper, the story was corrupted, changed, shaded with error.

Check out this tweet from CBC Ontario Morning:

It makes the claim that giving a child "a taste" or "even a sip" of alcohol is "not a good idea." It is important to note the shortness of this tweet. No attempt has been made to convey the complexities of the story.

This is a story that has been reported in the past and sometimes it has been reported very poorly. That said, let's cut right to the chase.

New Orleans magazine reported on this story. Allow me to quote a paragraph from that article.

“First sipping isn’t an early indicator of issues that would be of concern to parents,” wrote one of the psychologists in an August 2014 press release about an updated look at the same group of children. They showed that taking the first sip before age 12 correlated with a family’s permissiveness towards alcohol rather than predicting that a child was slated for abuse problems in young adulthood. There is no evidence that earlier sippers have more alcohol dependence, delinquent behavior, marijuana smoking, misuse of other illicit drugs, risky sexual behavior, car crashes or interruption of planned schooling than the late sippers."

If you want to stop reading now, you can. But, for those who want to read more, please, read on as I take a look at what some of the studies actually say:

For instance: adolescents who have consumed at least a full glass of alcohol or more are significantly different from adolescents who have simply had a sip of alcohol. And one might ask what the researchers define as a sip. But the important point is that adolescents benefiting from greater parental discipline, living with better rule enforcement and more comprehensive monitoring and enjoying positive family relations are less likely to have consumed a full glass of alcohol. 

And just how extensive is the problem of children consuming full glasses of wine, similar what is shown in the picture accompanying the tweet? According to the studies I found, it is not as extensive as we might expect. Many children consume no alcohol at all: almost 40% at 11 years of age have never tried alcohol and almost 60% have had only a sip or less. The little girl shown represents a little more than 2% of 11 year olds. If she is less than 11, she represents an even smaller proportion of children from her age group. Perhaps we should pity the little girl pictured. She appears to need improved parental monitoring. Going by the studies that I have found, there is a good chance her parents are not even aware she is engaging in a toast.

Screen grab: story discusses taking an early sip of alcohol.
So, if sipping, and only sipping, has not been implicated in future dangerous behaviour, why are we even discussing sipping. The answer is simple: the children who have had only a sip of alcohol and those who have had a full glass or more, have been combined in some reports into a single category. The whole issue has been muddied.

It appears there may be only one study explicitly investigating sipping of wine and beer in early adolesecence and that is Children’s Introduction to Alcohol Use: Sips and Tastes. And what was the conclusion of this study?

A young child’s sipping/tasting of alcohol . . . appears NOT to be an early indicator of the likelihood of future problem behavior.

It actually appears that parents are doing a fine job of keep alcohol away from their kids. There may well be no problem here. Most children only get to sip alcohol but once or twice, implying that this was opportunistic behavior rather than an attempt by parents to introduce their children’s to alcohol use. It may not be the sip that is the problem but the parental attitude.

Bolstering this interpretation is this fact: fully a third of the mothers and over half of the fathers did not even know that their child had ever had a sip or a taste of alcohol. Most sippers either sneaked their solitary sip when their parents were not watching or were given the single sip on the sly by someone such as an older brother or sister.

The public deserves better than this tweet. Our media must take advantage of every one of the 280 characters Twitter tweets offer. Teenage abuse of alcohol is a problem. The link between a young child having had a taste or a sip and having problems as a teen with alcohol is a link that researchers are still disputing.

Lastly, here is a link to the Lancet article that has been causing the recent stir. Association of parental supply of alcohol with adolescent drinking, alcohol-related harms, and alcohol use disorder symptoms: a prospective cohort study.

The Lancet article has a lot of negative things to say about parents supplying drinks to their children and this should come as no surprise. What is interesting is that the article reports under "Findings":

"Parental supply of alcohol was not significantly associated with the odds of reporting symptoms of either alcohol abuse or dependence, compared with no supply from any source."

I have to admit, I found the above statement out of place in the context of the Lancet article considered in its entirety. Putting all the info together is the job of the media, the job of the journalist. Sadly, all too often, the media handles complexity very poorly. (I would guess that Ontario Morning did not spend a number of days, possibly weeks, putting together their take on the research into underage drinking. It's an interesting story and I bet that it was sent to air as quickly as possible.)

Maybe in a future broadcast, Ontario Morning can investigate the role of the media in underage drinking. Yes, in researching this post I came across research claiming the depiction of alcohol in movies, on television and in social media can be linked to early alcohol abuse. This sounds like a great scare story. 

I can see the tweet now: "Let your child watch CBC dramas? We reveal why this is not a good idea, not even a glimpse. Research shows it could lead to alcohol abuse."

The above is a screen grab from the Huffington Post, Australian Edition.