Spam Journalism #60

By Jim McVeagh 02/10/2009

Spam Journalism: The spurious use of sensational headlines to add spice to an otherwise pointless article.

Sometimes, I confess I wonder whether spam medical headlines just represent ignorance, rather than the deliberate sensationalisation of a medical article. But in this case, I think it is clear that the journalist understood the meaning but deliberately twisted it to suit.

A sweet a day helps kids grow up violent

Banish the chocolate bars and lock up the gobstoppers – letting your children eat sweets could turn them into serial killers, according to psychiatrists.

The surprising claim is made by researchers who found that children who ate sweets and chocolate every day were more likely to be violent as adults.

This is clearly a silly conclusion. There can be no direct causation between candy consumption at age 10 and violent crime at age 34 (the statistical association found in the actual study). This sort of correlation is usually a surrogate one – something that causes parents to give excessive amounts of sweets to their children also prevents their children developing the social skills to handle conflict in a non-violent fashion.

To be fair, even the psychologists who were conducting the study forgot this principle. Here is their interpretation from the original article (partly quoted in the Herald one):

One plausible mechanism is that persistently using confectionery to control childhood behaviour might prevent children from learning to defer gratification, in turn biasing decision processes towards more impulsive behaviour, biases that are strongly associated with delinquency. Furthermore, childhood confectionery consumption may nurture a taste that is maintained into adulthood, exposing adults to the effects of additives often found in sweetened food,  the consumption of which may also contribute towards adult aggression.

Both of their explanations are trying to find a direct causal link between sweet consumption and violence. In the first, they suggest that children may be prevented from learning delayed gratification by being rewarded with candy if they behave. This is extremely unlikely. The evidence of multiple studies is that it is the children with an inability to delay their gratification that fail to behave and therefore receive fewer rewards.

The second suggestion, that children develop a sweet tooth and therefore eat too many sweets with violence-inducing additives is, surprisingly, slightly more plausible, if highly conjectural. There is absolutely no evidence that additives in sweets cause violent behaviour in adults.

I suspect that excessive sweet consumption at age 10 is a surrogate for parental neglect. This is not to say that every parent who often gives candy to their children is neglectful, but that some parents will substitute gifts for attention. Disengaged parents are a powerful risk factor for criminal behaviour in adults. This is confirmed even in the study we are discussing, because “Child-orientated parenting” at age five was the strongest negative correlation with violent behaviour at age 34. Spending time with your children is by far and away the best way of protecting them from a life of crime.

Too much candy comes a very poor second.