Ceteris Definitely Non Paribus

Healthline has a press release about a paper by Orpinas et al. that studies the dating trajectories of adolescents (gated) and shows that people who date early (starting from middle school) have worse academic performance. The press release is titled “It’s Best to Wait”, and it does its best to pick and choose quotes from Professor Orpinas to make it look like she and her coauthors have found a causal relationship:

“When the couple splits, they have to continue to see each other in class and perhaps witness the ex-partner dating someone else. It is reasonable to think this scenario could be linked to depression and divert attention from studying.”

This is frustrating. The paper itself is really interesting, and not that hard to summarize: we can group adolescents into a set of just a few distinct dating trajectories, and people who follow different trajectories also differ in their academic performance, dropout rates, and drug use in the ways you might imagine they would. The graphs are really nice, too, to the point where I wish they’d made more. Here’s an example showing the different dating trajectories – note the “high middle school” group, which goes down and then back up.

dating trajectories

What I dislike about the Healthline report is that as far as I can tell, the authors make no causal claims of the kind the press release makes. They show an interesting association, and Orpinas is right that early dating could partly be a cause of poor academic performance or drug use. But to paraphrase something my advisor once said about a potentially causal relationship, “A lot of other stuff could be going on.” To pick one likely omitted variable, middle schoolers might start dating young because of a permissive home environment that also allows them to slack off in school.

“Early dating may be partly to blame for poor grades but they both emerge from a complicated system that shapes students’ lives so any causal effect is probably small” doesn’t sell well. I get it. You need a nice headline. But I’ve got a bit of a vested interest in this fight: I have several personal friends whose parents thought they needed to prevent them from dating in order to improve academic performance. I’ve always thought – and continue to think – that this attitude is bizarre, unjustified, probably harmful to social development, and poisonous to the parent-child relationship.

Hat tip: probably reddit.

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