An object lesson in academic spin and press misreporting

Similar to the research on same-sex parenting 🙂

Does smacking really cause cancer, heart disease and asthma?
Family Education Trust Bulletin – March 2013
‘Smacking children may increase risk of them developing cancer’ reported the Daily Telegraph, while the Daily Mail warned, ‘Smacking or shouting at your children “raises their risk of cancer, heart disease and asthma later in life.”’ These eye-catching and alarming headlines were triggered by research undertaken by academics from Plymouth University and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Behavioural Medicine. 1 Needless to say, the study itself provides no grounds for parental fears that a moderate disciplinary smack or an occasional raised voice will blight the lives of their children and run the risk of shortening their life-expectancy.

The news reports were based on a survey of a sample of asthma, cancer, and cardiac patients inSaudi Arabiaand a control group. Participants in the study were asked: ‘Were you beaten by your parents?’ and ‘Did your parents verbally insult you?’ The results of the survey suggested an association between reported beatings and insults received as a child and increased risk of developing cancer, asthma and heart disease as an adult.

Not about smacking
Given that the research was not about smacking or shouting at all, but about Saudi Arabian-style beatings and verbal insults, how did the newspapers come to publish such misleading headlines?

The answer lies inPlymouthUniversity’s press release. Under the headline, ‘Smacked children at greater risk of developing cancer and heart disease’, the university claimed that: ‘Parents who smack or shout at their children could be placing them at greater risk of developing cancer, heart disease and asthma.’

Family Education Trust put it to the university that there is a marked difference between ‘beatings’ in Saudi Arabia and the much more moderate kind of disciplinary intervention denoted by the word ‘smacking’ in the UK and many other parts of the world. For the university to imply they are equivalent suggests a lack of academic integrity. Initially, the university resisted amending the press release, maintaining that ‘the word “beatings” inSaudi Arabiadoes represent what we would refer to as smacking as well as more severe punishment’.

In reply, Family Education Trust observed that for the point argued in the press release to stand, the researchers would have needed to disaggregate the mild form of physical correction denoted by ‘smacking’ in the UK from the harsher treatments included under the term ‘beatings’ in Saudi Arabia and look at the health outcomes for the former group alone.

But since the study did not ask respondents about the severity of the ‘beatings’ they received, the Trust reasoned that it was without foundation for the university to convey the message that what might be termed normal parenting practice in the UK is presenting children with serious health risks.

After further consultation with the academics responsible for the study, the university finally agreed to amend the press release so that it is now headed, ‘Children subjected to beatings could be at greater risk of developing cancer and heart disease’ and the references to smacking and shouting were removed.

As an article on the NHS Choices website observes, thePlymouthUniversitystudy is ‘ subject to a number of significant limitations’. It highlights the fact that the study does not take into account socioeconomic, environmental and lifestyle factors and notes that, ‘There may be important social and cultural differences betweenSaudi Arabiaand other countries which mean these results cannot be easily generalised to other countries.’

1. Michael E Hyland, Ahmed M Alkhalaf, Ben Whalley, ‘Beating and insulting children as a risk for adult cancer, cardiac disease and asthma’, Journal of Behavioural Medicine, September 2012,ISSN: 0160-7715 (Print), 1573-3521 (Online).