Police Your Teens, Or Else?

07/27/2010 10:19 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

According to the latest research, unsupervised hanging out is nothing but trouble. But trouble is, what trouble? Or, compared to what?

New research in the journal Criminology shows that teens with more unstructured hanging out time are more likely to do certain bad things. According to the press release:

Other research has shown that "unstructured socializing" by teens can lead to general delinquency, but this study is the first to suggest that it may also be associated with violent behavior.

Nothing but trouble.

As usual, I'm not an expert on this research. But I know enough to take issue with the conclusions. One co-author, Christopher Browning at Ohio State University, is quoted as saying, "Parents are better off assuming that more structure is better for their teens." As the press release further explains:

Browning said the study took into account a wide variety of characteristics that are also associated with violence, such as prior levels of violence of each adolescent, their levels of impulsivity, and the violence levels of each child's peers.

But that is the difference between a statistical study - not that there's anything wrong with that - and the advice to parents it generates. In real life, for real parents, those other things -- the prior levels of violence, the level of impulsivity, and the level of violence among his or her peers -- may be exactly what matters. For an individual, you should take them "into account," but you can't "hold them constant." If a given child scores low on all the other risk factors, even an increase in the proportional risk of bad behavior is no big deal -- compared with the possible benefits of unstructured socializing.

The article includes in the measure of "violent" behavior things that are very rare or unlikely in the case of many teens (like "gang fights"). If there is little or no risk of gang fights, doubling that risk doesn't much matter.

Of course, if a given child has many risk factors, adding to them can make a big difference and be a bad idea. And I'm not diminishing the importance of preventing teen violence. But there is a difference between a population pattern and the advice it compels.

One additional beef -- compared to what? Is increasing the risk of violence the only thing that matters? What about having fun, learning to socialize competently and make independent decisions? The study did not have a measure of the harm caused by the violence (the most common item was  "hitting" someone outside the family). Again, not to promote violence, but a little violence now might be better than a lot of some other problem later.

Everyone likes research with important direct implications, but pushing it to the personal level can be misleading.

OK, is this horse dead yet?

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.