Eating Together as a Family and Reducing Youthful Drug Use

Parents should east dinner with their children in order to reduce youthful drug use urges a nation-wide public-service campaign featuring Barbara Bush and Jamie Lee Curtis. The advice is based on a report supposedly showing that frequent family dining reduces by half the risk of substance abuse by young people. 1

“If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in the substance abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week,” says Joe Califano, head of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the group behind the report. “There is no more important thing a parent can do” to reduce the chance that their children will use drugs, insists Califano. He argues that it “ is the key to ridding our nation of the scourge of substance abuse.” 2

Eating together as a family probably has many benefits. But what of the claim that doing so reduces drug use by 50%?

The study does NOT show that eating together as a family causes lower drug use. Consisting of a telephone survey of 1,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 and of 829 parents, it only found that among this sample of people, those who ate with their parents scored 50% lower on a substance-abuse risk assessment than those who didn’t. 3

Anyone who has ever taken an introductory course in research methods will see red flags everywhere. Indeed, the report could well serve as a case study in how not to conduct research.

For starters, the samples of parents and young people is not at all representative of American families. The researchers began with over 37,000 phone numbers. One-third were excluded because of language barriers, no one answered the phone, and any of a number of other reasons. Of the remaining phone numbers, 9,000 represent people who refused to answer questions, and about 1,000 “were cut off.“ The company that conducted the survey admitted that it has “a very low response rate” yet absolutely nothing was done to address this serious problem. 4

The report concludes that frequently eating together as a family reduces drug risk by 50%, but fails to consider the effects of age. Seventeen-year-olds are much more likely to use drugs than are 12-year-olds. They are also much more likely to eat separately from other family members. Ignoring this important and obvious fact essentially ensures the resulting conclusion, which is almost certainly meaningless. 5

However, science writer Carl Bialik asked the survey company to conduct the simple analysis necessary to examine the effects of age. The result? Not surprisingly, “age correlated more strongly with risk than did family dinners.” It should be unnecessary to report that the investigators also failed to take into account family socioeconomic status. And the list goes on and on. 6

Another serious problem is that the researchers didn’t actually compare family dining with drug use. Instead they compared dining behavior with a “drug risk score” that they created. The risk score was based on such things a whether or not respondents said their friends use drugs. Although the investigators asked respondents if they use drugs themselves, that information was not included in calculating the drug risk scores. Information on actual drug use was apparently discarded unused for reasons unknown. 7

The report was self-published by the CASA, which has been criticized for usually avoiding the scrutiny of peer review required by publication in scientific and scholarly journals. Reports that bypass the peer review process may use faulty sampling techniques, improper statistical analyses, draw unwarranted conclusions, and make unsubstantiated assertions. In the absence of peer review the public is completely unprotected. Special interests groups can , and often do, pass off shoddy and even intentionally deceptive reports as legitimate scientific research. 8

In one of the public service announcements, Barbara Bush says “We know the more often children have dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, and use drugs. So simply having dinner together can help your children, forever.” 9

Eating dinner together regularly is probably a reflection of strong family ties, a desire to communicate and share with other family members, and a generally well functioning family. In short, its almost certainly an effect rather than a cause of such functioning. Therefore, a dysfunctional family that decides to eat together regularly in order to prevent drug use will probably fail in its objective.

So what’s the harm in urging people to eat together. Nothing, unless it misleads people into thinking that by simply by doing so they can solve the problem of drug abuse. That would be a counterproductive disaster.

References

  • 1. Bialik, Carl. The link between dinner and drugs. The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2005.
  • 2. Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction. CASA and TV Land/Nick at Nite report shows frequent family dinners cut teens’ substance abuse risk in half. New York: National Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction at Columbia University press release, September 13, 2005.
  • 3. Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction. The Importance of Family Dinner II. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, September, 2005.
  • 4. Bialik, Carl. The link between dinner and drugs. The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2005.
  • 5. Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction. The Importance of Family Dinner II. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, September, 2005.
  • 6. Bialik, Carl. The link between dinner and drugs. The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2005.
  • 7. Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction. The Importance of Family Dinner II. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, September, 2005.
  • 8. See The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse: A Center for Alcohol Statistics Abuse? (http://www.alcoholfacts.org/CASAAlcoholStatisticsAbuse.html)
  • 9. Bialik, Carl. The link between dinner and drugs. The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2005.

Readings

  • Brignell, J. Sorry, Wrong Number!: The Abuse of Measurement. London, England: Brignell Associates, 2000.
  • Huff, D. How to Lie with Statistics. NY: Norton, 1993.
  • Milloy, S. J. Science Without Sense: The Risky Business of Public Health Research. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1995.