According to two independent judges whose votes were unanimous, DiSH Labber Cassandra Fletcher wrote the best paper in Dr. T’s Health Psychology class this semester! Congrats, Cassie, on a well-deserved honor.
The assignment was to examine the way the media portrays scientific studies and sometimes distorts the findings. Read on to see her paper, the original scientific study on absent fathers and early puberty, and the press piece that she critiqued.
Correlational Study of Absent Fathers and Early Menarche
This study attempts to correlate a physical phenomenon, early menarche, with a psychological factor, the impact of an absent father, thus putting us squarely in the field of health psychology. It is, as previously mentioned, a correlational study. The study used statistics from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles 2000 to see what if any relation age of menarche had to paternal absence while also considering that body mass can often affect menarche and the possibility of older siblings to moderate the effect of an absent father. 5,913 women were considered in this study and these variables were calculated both by self-report over a computerized questionnaire and also from personal interviews. It should be noted here that the experiment also attempted to control for differences in socioeconomic status, age, and race of the participant. They found that early menarche was highly correlated to paternal absence and that body mass index and the presence of younger siblings did affect age of menarche but that these two findings were quite separate and did not interact in a significant way.
The press piece that covered this article was correct in a few points including that maternal absence was not significantly correlated with age of menarche which is briefly mentioned in the article. Also, many of the facts and statistics quoted were correct although they were not taken from this particular study, including that, in Britain, one in eight girls will achieve menarche before leaving primary school. In addition, the paper does get it right that early menarche is correlated with higher teen pregnancies and depression and that “changing genes can not explain the trend”, of earlier menarche.
However, there were also many mistakes in this press piece. The most glaring of course is that correlation does not prove causation and although this study shows a correlation between paternal absence and age of menarche it does not suggest that paternal absence causes girls to enter menarche earlier. Also, I was not able to verify several of the statistics and claims in this piece, like “only 2% of those who [enter puberty early] go on to enter higher education” and I have not seen a study that related the degree of familial instability to age of menarche in months. I also did not find a study that related positive/negative paternal relationship to age of menarche or absence of father due to illness or work and I have no idea where he came up with the facts like, “if the father leaves the family home before the girl is six, she is twice as likely to have early first periods and four times more likely to start sex early,” and “The more times a girl’s family environment changes (with the mother taking new partners) in childhood, the greater the risk of early puberty. If there are three or more new partners, a girl is five times more likely to have a teenage pregnancy.” The article that the press piece references at the bottom of the page does not contain any reference to father absence and talks only about age of menarche in relation to body mass index which the press piece hardly addresses.
A more fitting opening might be, “A new study finds that the age at which girls enter puberty is strongly correlated to the presence or absence of their biological fathers.” The article could then go on to explain that although we do not have evidence for a particular mechanism yet, several theories have been proposed as to why this odd correlation seems to exist. For example, there may be a genetic component which predisposes fathers to impulsive behavior and their daughters to early menarche or perhaps mothers who exhibited menarche earlier were more likely to have sex earlier and therefore to raise a daughter on their own and pass down their own genetic predisposition to early menarche. Another theory is that the stress of an unstable family life may lead to weight gain which has been linked to early menarche. The truth is that there are an infinite number of variables that may be affecting both family stability and age of menarche and at this point, it is impossible to design a true experiment (in good conscience) to determine what exactly is causing earlier and earlier puberty in girls.
Original Scientific Article