Look to your left and to your right.

If a recent study reported in the news is to be believed, one of you three was abused as a child.

Thankfully, this is not true.

The study “Child abuse and mental disorders in Canada” was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  Unfortunately, there are three main problems with the study and conclusion.

First, the definition of child abuse is insanely broad.  If you were spanked three or more times, you were abused.  If you were pushed three or more times, you were abused.  If something was thrown at you three or more times, you were abused.  Even the Supreme Court of Canada has acknowledged that the use of force is not necessarily child abuse.

Second, the statistic of 1 in 3 actually lumps together both “abused” children and children who witnessed violence.  If you witnessed your mom slapping your dad three or more times, you were abused.  If you even heard your parents hitting each other three or more times, you were abused.  Of course it’s not good to witness any violence between your parents, but it’s not equivalent to child abuse.

Third, this is a retrospective study which has an inherent recall bias.  What does that mean?  Retrospective means that  survey participants were asked about things that happened in the past.  Bias is a tendency to answer in a certain way depending on characteristics of the study participants.  Recall bias means that people in one group are more likely to recall exposures/events than people in the other group.  The study compares mental health of people who experienced “child abuse” or did not experience it.  People who have a mental illness are more likely to recall any possible incidence of child abuse because they are looking for an explanation for their disease.

Also, this study is an analysis of 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health.  People who are willing to tell a stranger on the phone about mental illness are also likely to be more willing to tell about potential child abuse.

I wish that news organizations would hire someone (maybe an epidemiologist?) with some kind of scientific background to critically evaluate studies BEFORE trumpeting the results with misleading headlines.

 

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