Could gay-straight alliances reduce school bullying?

By Robert Marx, Vanderbilt University and Heather Hensman Kettrey, Vanderbilt University.

As students across the country zip up their backpacks and get on the bus for the first day of school, many will have more to focus on than memorizing their new schedules or making it to homeroom on time.

For some, the chief concern will be avoiding the bullying and harassment that follow from class to class, through the hallways or into locker rooms.

Although federal data indicate rates of bullying have decreased over the past decade, bullying remains a significant issue. One in five students still reports being bullied at school.

Even though all students are at risk, bullying does not target or affect all students equally: Some students are not only more likely to be bullied, but are also more likely to be negatively impacted by it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students are approximately 91 percent more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers.

Tragically, being bullied is associated with higher rates of anxiety disorders, depression and poor academic performance as well as suicide, suicidal attempts and suicidal thoughts. Students who are bullied for their actual or perceived sexuality or gender expression (that is, victims of homophobic bullying) are more likely than students who are bullied for other reasons to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.

In some ways, this may explain why LGBTQ students report rates of attempted suicide two to seven times that of their heterosexual peers.

So, what can be done about this?

One promising solution is the establishment of gay-straight alliances in schools.

What are gay-straight alliances?

Gay-straight alliances are student-run organizations that provide a space for LGBTQ students and their straight allies to come together. Gay-straight alliances often aim to promote a supportive school climate for students of all sexual orientations and gender expressions, to decrease bullying, and to provide students with a space to be themselves.

The earliest gay-straight alliances emerged in Massachusetts in the late 1980s when students and teachers at three different private schools began to hold meetings between LGBTQ and straight students.

Today, there are over 4,000 local chapters of gay-straight alliances, officially registered with the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, illustrating their popularity in addressing homophobic bullying in the United States.

Students meet to socialize, watch movies, discuss social issues, and plan dances and events for the school.
Liz Henry, CC BY-ND

Students meet to socialize, watch movies, discuss social issues, and plan dances and events for their school. They also organize advocacy initiatives such as the Day of Silence and No Name Calling Week, that bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.

The promise of gay-straight alliances

Considering the high risk that LGBTQ students face for being bullied, harassed, or victimized at school, we sought to determine whether gay-straight alliances were associated with lower rates of homophobic bullying.

We believed our partnership was perfect to explore this question: One of us (Robert) is a former high school teacher and gay-straight alliance advisor, and the other (Heather) is a sociologist who studies gender and sexuality. Together, we wanted to explore the existing research on gay-straight alliances to determine if there were any uniform findings that could be important for policymakers and school leaders.

The promise of gay-straight alliances.
Tim Evanson, CC BY-SA

We combined and analyzed data from approximately 63,000 adolescents who participated in 15 independent studies about their experiences with gay-straight alliances and bullying.

We found that, although individual studies offered mixed results (as some said gay-straight alliances were associated with lower reports of student victimization, while others said there was no association), data indicated students at schools with gay-straight alliances reported less bullying.

LGBTQ students at schools with gay-straight alliances were 52 percent less likely to hear homophobic remarks like “that’s so gay” at school. Additionally, these students were 36 percent less likely to be fearful for their own safety and 30 percent less likely to experience “homophobic victimization,” such as being harassed or physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

Can gay-straight alliances change school environment?

Interestingly, in our analysis, we did not distinguish between gay-straight alliance members and nonmembers. That means LGBTQ students may derive the potential benefits of having a gay-straight alliances at their school regardless of whether they participate in these clubs themselves.

Perhaps having a gay-straight alliance promotes an accepting school climate by sending the message that a school is welcoming and committed to the success of all its students and, therefore, homophobic acts will not be tolerated. Perhaps gay-straight alliances raise awareness of LGBTQ issues among all students and, thus, create a supportive environment for all LGBTQ students, not just those who are gay-straight alliances members.

Regardless, it is heartening to know that all LGBTQ students could benefit from gay-straight alliances.

Importantly, our research is consistent with the existing body of literature around bullying. Our findings indicating that gay-straight alliances are associated with lower rates of bullying are right in line with previous evaluations of general anti-bullying programs that do not specifically target homophobic bullying.

Gay-straight alliances lower the risk of bullying.
Western Connecticut State University Peggy Stewart Follow, CC BY-ND

That means that gay-straight alliances, which are student-initiated, student-run organizations that require little funding beyond an advisor’s stipend, may promote benefits similar to those derived from outside programs that can require considerable funds and resources to implement.

There are hurdles

Despite the promise of gay-straight alliances as a potential solution to homophobic bullying, there are obstacles to the establishment of these clubs. In some cases, students’ attempts to establish gay-straight alliances in their schools have been thwarted by opposition from parents or school administrators who believe these clubs are inappropriate for adolescents – or even that they impose a gay agenda on students.

Under the Equal Access Act, American students have a right to establish gay-straight alliances. However, some students have found themselves embroiled in legal battles to ensure this right. To date, there have been 17 federal lawsuits in which students and parents have successfully sued school boards for denying charters or banning gay-straight alliances.

In spite of these challenges, we find it powerful to know that one of the most effective weapons in the fight to stop LGBTQ bullying is simple: youth coming together to talk, laugh and share their lives.

The ConversationRobert Marx, Ph.D. Student, Vanderbilt University and Heather Hensman Kettrey, Research Associate, Peabody Research Institute, Vanderbilt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sex on TV: Less impact on teens than you might think

By Christopher Ferguson, Stetson University .

Few people would doubt that sex is ubiquitous in media – whether movies, television, music or books – and that teens today have unprecedented access to all of it. It’s often taken for granted that this easy access to “sexy media” has an influence on teenage sexuality.

Specifically, the worry is that teens may have sex earlier or engage in higher-risk sexual activities such as having multiple partners or exposing themselves to potential pregnancies or STDs. In 2010 the American Academy of Pediatrics even published a position paper claiming that sexually explicit media could promote risky teen sexual behavior.

But government data find that teens are actually waiting longer than in the past to have sex. And teen pregnancy rates are at historic lows. How is it possible that sexy media has such a pernicious effect even as teen sexuality is becoming healthier?

I’ve spent more than a decade researching how media – like video games or advertising – influences youth behavior. What fascinates me is how society interacts with media, often embracing salacious content while simultaneously blaming it for societal problems, whether real or imagined.

So my colleagues and I decided to look at the research on sexy media and teenage sexual behavior to see how the strong the link between the two is.

Sexy media doesn’t predict sexual behavior

Despite the common assumptions about sex in the media and its alleged effects on teens, the evidence behind the link is weak. Some studies find evidence for a small effect (perhaps in some circumstances but not others), while others find no evidence for any effect.

One reason the evidence may not be conclusive is that there are practical and ethical limitations to conducting research. We can’t run experiments where teens watch different TV shows and we wait around to see who has sex. This means research often relies on self-reported data. What we do is ask teens to report on their sexual behavior and their media preferences, as well as other variables we might like to control for (such as personality or family environment) and see if correlations exist.

With this in mind, my colleagues Patrick Markey at Villanova and Danish researcher Rune Nielsen and I conducted a meta-analysis of 22 studies with over 22,000 participants that examine the correlation between sexy media and teenage sexual behavior. A meta-analysis lets us look for commonalities in the results, and is something that had not been done previously with this pool of research.

All of the studies in the meta-analysis looked at depictions of sexual situations, nudity, partial nudity or explicit discussions of sex in television shows or movies easily accessible to minors (and thus excluded pornography).

In particular, we were curious to see whether sexy media predicted teen sexual behavior once other variables had been controlled. For instance, maybe boys tend to watch sexier media and also are more sexually risk-taking. Or perhaps youth who are more liberal in terms of personality are more open both to sexy media and earlier sexual initiation. Perhaps a difficult family background is the underlying key to understanding any correlation between media use habits and actual sexual behavior.

Ultimately, this is what we found. Once other factors such as family environment, personality or even gender were controlled, sexy media exposure did not meaningfully correlate with teen sexual behavior.

Contrary to common fears, sexy media doesn’t seem to have any practical significance for when teens first have sex or start other sexual behaviors. This lack of correlation is a warning sign we might be on the wrong track in trying to blame media for teen sexual risk-taking.

The kids are all right.
Group of teens via

Why doesn’t media influence teens?

There are numerous theories that discuss how individuals and media interact. However, many older media effects theories didn’t consider why people were drawn to media, how they processed it, or what they hoped to get from it. Such theories assumed viewers simply irrationally and purposelessly imitated what they saw. Most of the papers we examined in our meta-analysis were tests of these basic, automatic, media effects theories.

In the past few years, some scholars (myself included) have specifically called for the retirement of these older media effects theories. This is because the evidence increasingly suggests that fictional media such as feature movies or sitcoms media is too remote to have a clear impact on consumers’ behavior, especially compared to families and peers.

In addition, emerging evidence suggests that young children process fictional media differently from real events. If small children are able to process a difference between fictional events and real events, we can assume that teens don’t really expect media to reflect reality.

Our results regarding the limited impact of media also fit with the observations from societal data. Despite a plethora of sexual media available to teens, a crisis of risky teen sexual behavior has not emerged.

We watch what we’re interested in watching

Newer models of media use suggest that it is the individuals who consume media, not the media itself, who are the driving agents of behavior. Evidence suggests that users seek out and interpret media according to what they want to get from it, rather than passively imitating it.

People don’t generally accidentally watch media, sexual or otherwise, but are motivated to do so because of preexisting desires.

For instance, some recent studies have indicated that youth seek out media that fit with preexisting motives, called a selection effect, but that media don’t necessarily lead to further problem behaviors. For example, research suggests that some teens who are already aggressive might be interested in violent video games, but playing such games doesn’t make kids more aggressive.

That’s a point that sometimes seems ignored when we talk about teens and sex. Interest in sex is a largely biologically motivated process; fictional media really isn’t required. Teens will become interested in sex all on their own.

Parents have more influence than the media

Parents can rest a bit easier since the evidence suggests that media isn’t a primary driver of teen sexuality.

To the extent media has any impact at all, it is likely only in a vacuum left by adults reluctant to talk to kids about sex, especially the stuff kids really want to know.

How do you ask someone out on a date and how do you handle it if they say no? What does sex feel like? When is it OK to have sex? What are the risks and how do you avoid them? In the face of patient, empathic and informative discussions about sex by adults kids trust, the media likely has little influence.

Ultimately, whether media have salacious or more conscientious portrayals of sexuality, we should not expect media to replace conversations with youth by parents, guardians and educators.

I’m not suggesting everyone run out and buy “50 Shades of Grey” for their teen, but if teens happen to come across it (and they will), it’s not the end of the world.

The important thing for parents is to talk to their kids.

The ConversationChristopher Ferguson, Associate Professor of Psychology, Stetson University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sexting might actually be a sign of a committed relationship

By Rob Weisskirch, California State University, Monterey Bay.

Why do people sext? Why do they send racy or naked photos or videos and sexually loaded texts?

For a short-term hookup, sexting might seem like a direct way to get what you want – or at least try to. But according to my research, sexting is actually most likely to occur within a committed relationship. Some research suggests that people often engage in sexting after being coerced by romantic partners or to avoid an argument with their romantic partner. So perhaps anxiety and concern about what your romantic partner thinks about you promote behaviors like sexting.

As a human development researcher who studies how technology influences relationships, I wanted to understand if people who are anxious about dating or about what their partner thinks of them are more likely to sext.

So where does this relationship anxiety come from?

One of the major theories regarding relationships is called attachment theory. It suggests that the way you related to your caregiver as an infant (and vice versa) shapes how you come to view relationships later in life.

If your caregiver was attuned to your needs and responsive, you will develop a secure attachment. That means you are comfortable with close relationships because your experience paid off – Mom or Dad was there when you were distressed or hungry or cold. From that experience, you learned that relationships are safe and reciprocal, and your attachment anxiety is low.

But if your caregiver was not so attuned to your needs, was intrusive or inattentive, you might develop what is called an insecure attachment. If something you wanted emotionally or physically (like comfort) went unfulfilled, you might end up anxious about relationships as an adult. You might realize that relationships may not be trustworthy, not invest in close relationships, and avoid intimacy all together.

Do people sext because of relational anxiety?

My colleagues, Michelle Drouin and Rakel Delevi, and I hypothesized that people who were afraid of being single or had dating anxiety and who were, at the same time, anxious or insecure in their attachment style would be more likely to sext. We also thought these singles would be more likely to sext their romantic partners, even when their relationship wasn’t very committed.

We gave 459 unmarried, heterosexual, undergraduate students an online questionnaire to learn more about how relational anxiety influences sexting behavior. It covered questions measuring their sexting behaviors, relationship commitment needed to engage in sexting, their fear of being single, their dating anxiety and their attachment style (secure or insecure). Half of the people who took the survey were single, and about 71 percent were female.

Commitment counts. Man texting via

We found that people in romantic relationships – whether of long or short duration – were more likely to have sexted than those who did not have romantic partners. There were no gender differences for engaging in sexting, except that males were more likely than females to have sent a text propositioning sexual activity.

We also found that, generally, dating anxiety from fear of negative evaluation from the romantic partner (basically, worrying about what your partner thinks of you) and having a more secure attachment style (i.e., comfort with intimacy and close relationships) predicted if someone had sent a sexually suggestive photo or video, a picture in underwear or lingerie, a nude photo or a sexually suggestive text.

We expected to find that anxiety would prompt people to sext but were surprised that comfort with intimacy related to sexting behaviors. We also expected to find that sexting would occur in relationships without a lot of commitment, meaning that we thought that sexting would be part of the wooing.

But it turns out that people who are comfortable with close relationships (a secure attachment style) and also worry about what their partner might think of them are more likely to engage in sexting, but only if there some level of commitment in the relationship.

So our hypothesis was only partially confirmed.

What’s dating anxiety got to do with it?

What this tells us is that people may be concerned with pleasing their partner’s desire – or perceived desire – to engage in sexting and that it is the comfort with intimacy in relationships that may allow sexting to occur. And, when there is greater relationship commitment, this continues to be the case.

It appears that there is less stigma and greater comfort with sexting, provided that one perceives that his or her partner wants to sext and if there is a degree of relationship commitment.

So, a little sexting within a relationship might not be too bad.

The ConversationRob Weisskirch, Professor of Human Development, California State University, Monterey Bay

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Should parents ask their children to apologize?

Craig Smith, University of Michigan

Have you ever felt deserving of an apology and been upset when you didn’t get one? Have you ever found it hard to deliver the words, I’m sorry?

Such experiences show how much apologies matter. The importance placed on apologies is shared by many cultures. Diverse cultures even share a great deal in common when it comes to how apologies are communicated.

When adults feel wronged, apologies have been shown to help in a variety of ways:
Apologies can reduce retaliation; they can bring about forgiveness and empathy for wrongdoers; and they can aid in the repair of broken trust. Further, sincere apologies have the physiological effect of lowering blood pressure more quickly, especially among those who are prone to hold on to anger.

How do children view and experience apologies? And what do parents think about when to prompt their young ones to apologize?

How children understand apologies

Research shows that children as young as age four grasp the emotional implications of apology. They understand, for example, that an apology can improve the feelings of someone who’s been upset. Preschoolers also judge apologizing wrongdoers to be more likable, and more desirable as partners for interaction and cooperation.

Children as young as four understand the emotional meaning of an apology. Funkyah, CC BY-NC-ND

Recent studies have tested the actual impact of apologies on children. In one such study, a group of four- to seven-year-olds received an apology from a child who failed to share, while another group did not get an apology. The participants who received the apology felt better and viewed the offending child as nicer as well as more remorseful.

Another study exposed children to a more distressing event: A person knocked over a tower that six- to seven-year-olds were building. Some children got an apology, some did not. In this case, a spontaneous apology did not improve children’s upset feelings. However, the apology still had an impact. Children who got an apology were willing to share more of their attractive stickers with the person who knocked over the tower compared to those who did not get an apology.

This finding suggests that an apology led to forgiveness in children, even if sadness about the incident understandably lingered. Notably, children did feel better when the other person offered to help rebuild their toppled towers. In other words, for children, both remorseful words and restorative actions make a difference.

When does a child’s apology matter to parents?

Although apologies carry meaning for children, views on whether parents should ask their children to apologize vary. A recent caution against apology prompting was based on the mistaken notion that young children have limited social understanding. In fact, young children understand a great deal about others’ viewpoints.

When and why parents prompt their children to apologize has not been systematically studied. In order to gain better insight into this question, I recently conducted a study with my colleagues Jee Young Noh and Michael Rizzo at the University of Maryland and Paul Harris at Harvard University.

We surveyed 483 parents of three- to 10-year-old children. Most participants were mothers, but there was a sizable group of fathers as well. Parents were recruited via online parenting discussion groups and came from communities all around the U.S.. The discussion groups had a variety of orientations toward parenting.

In order to account for the possibility that parents might want to show themselves in the best light, we took a measure of “social desirability bias” from each parent. The results reported here emerged after we statistically corrected for the influence of this bias.

A card from daughter to mother.
Todd Ehlers, CC BY-ND

We asked parents to imagine their children committing what they would consider to be “transgressions.” We then asked them how likely they would be to prompt an apology in each scenario. We also asked parents to rate how important they felt it was for their children to learn to apologize in a variety of situations. Finally, we asked the parents about their general approaches to parenting.

The large majority of parents (96 percent) felt that it was important for their children to learn to apologize following an incident in which children upset another person on purpose. Further, 88 percent felt it was important for their children to learn to apologize in the aftermath of upsetting someone by mistake.

Fewer than five percent of the parents surveyed endorsed the view that apologies are empty words. However, parents were sensitive to context.

Parents reported being especially likely to prompt apologies following their children’s intentional and accidental “moral transgressions.” Moral transgressions involve issues of welfare, justice, and rights, such as stealing from or hurting another person.

Parents viewed apologies as relatively less important following their children’s transgressions of social convention (e.g., breaking a rule in a game, interrupting a conversation).

Apology as a way to mend rifts

It’s noteworthy that parents were very likely to anticipate prompting apologies following incidents in which their children upset others on purpose and by mistake.

This suggests that a focus for many parents, when prompting apologies, is addressing the outcomes of their children’s social missteps. Our data suggest that parents use apology prompts to teach their children how to manage difficult social situations, regardless of underlying intentions.

Parents may prompt an apology to mend an interpersonal rift.
Girl image via

For example, 88 percent of parents indicated that they would typically prompt an apology if their child broke a peer’s toy by mistake (in the event that the child did not apologize spontaneously).

Indeed, parents especially anticipated prompting apologies following accidental mishaps that involved their children’s peers (and not parents themselves as the wronged parties). When a child’s peer is a victim, parents likely recognize that apologies can quickly mend potential interpersonal rifts that may otherwise linger.

We also asked parents why they viewed apology prompts as important for their children. In the case of moral transgressions, parents saw these prompts as tools for helping children take responsibility. In addition, they used apology prompts for promoting empathy, teaching about harm, helping others feel better and clearing up confusing situations.

However, not all parents viewed the importance of apology prompting in the same way. There was a subset of parents who were relatively permissive: warm and caring but not overly inclined to provide discipline or expect mature behavior from their children.

Most of these parents were not wholly dismissive of the importance of apologies, but they consistently indicated being less likely to provide prompting to their children, compared to the other parents in the study.

When to prompt an apology

Overall, most parents in our study viewed apologies as important in the lives of children. And the child development research described above indicates that many children share this view.

But are there more and less effective ways to prompt a child to apologize? I argue that parents should consider whether a child will offer a prompted apology willingly and sincerely. A recently completed study sheds some light on why.

When should parents prompt an apology? Zvi Kons, CC BY-NC

In this study – currently under review – we asked four- to nine-year-old children to evaluate two types of apologies that were prompted by an adult. One apology was willingly given to the victim after the apology prompt; the other apology was given only after additional adult coercion (“You need to say you’re sorry!”).

We found that 90 percent of the children viewed the recipient of the prompted, “willingly given” apology as feeling better. However, only 22 percent of the children connected a coerced apology to improved feelings in the victim.

So, as parents ponder the merits of prompting apologies from children, it seems important to refrain from pushing one’s child to apologize when he or she is not ready, or is simply not remorseful. Most young children don’t view coerced apologies as effective.

In such cases, interventions aimed at calming down, increasing empathy and making amends may be more constructive than pushing a resistant child to deliver an apology. And, of course, components like making amends can accompany willingly given apologies as well.

Finally, to arguments that apologies are merely empty words that young children parrot, it’s worth noting that we have many rituals that involve rather scripted verbal exchanges, such as when two people in love say “I do” at a wedding or commitment ceremony.

Just as these scripted words carry deep cultural and personal meaning, so too can other culturally valued verbal scripts, such the words in an apology. Thoughtfully teaching young children about apologizing is one aspect of teaching them how to be caring and well-regarded members of their communities.

The ConversationCraig Smith, Research Investigator, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why the GM food labeling debate is not over

By Jane Kolodinsky, University of Vermont.

The U.S. Senate this week reached a compromise to require food manufacturers to label foods that contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, a bill that would preempt state-level laws. The deal comes only one week before Vermont’s law to require GM food labeling will go into effect. If the Senate compromise bill is voted on and passed by a supermajority and signed into law by President Obama, Vermont’s law will be superseded.

The Vermont law stipulates a positive declaration – that is, a label must indicate there are some ingredients are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Senate proposal, which backers said is meant to avoid a patchwork of state laws, gives food manufacturers a number of options for how to disclose which products have GM ingredients. Companies could place text on labels, offer a Quick Response (QR) code that would be read with a smartphone or provide a phone number or website with more information. Organic products can be labeled “non-GMO.”

Although the Vermont law and the Senate bill bring the question of labeling to the forefront, the debate over GM food and consumer education has been percolating for some 25 years.

I have studied the social science research about whether and how GM foods should be labeled. In my view, the proposed federal legislation, while consistent across the country, makes it very difficult for consumers to obtain the information they want to know – namely, whether a product has been produced using GM technology or ingredients.

What labels convey

In a 2013 study, Arizona State University professors Gary Marchant and Guy Cardineu identified five issues that are important to the decision of whether or not to label:

  • public opinion
  • consumer choice
  • the legality of labeling requirements
  • costs and benefits of labeling, and
  • risks and benefits of GM foods.

They concluded: “While the case for GM labeling seems compelling on first appearance, a closer examination of the scientific, legal, economic and policy arguments and evidence demonstrates that compulsory GM labeling is unwarranted, unnecessary and being manipulated by a cynical and self-serving campaign funded and organized by the organic food industry.”

But I have examined the current state of evidence and have come to the opposite conclusion, as have American courts and several major corporations.

For starters, for at least 15 years, research surveys have found that consumers desire labeling. This has been indicated by Consumer Reports, my own research and many others. Public opinion is on the side of labeling.

Labels play a significant role in facilitating consumer choice in the case of credence goods. These are goods for that consumers cannot determine, through search nor experience, whether a product contains an attribute or quality they prefer, such as the use of GM technology. Labels convey to consumers a desired or undesired attribute.

On the question of legality of labeling requirements, it is worth noting that legal arguments against labeling have failed. Challenged by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association of America and several other trade groups, the Vermont law was upheld in April 2015. And, while bill HR 1599 passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July of 2015, which would have prohibited states from promulgating their own labeling laws, it failed to pass the U.S Senate in March 2016.

Also, there is no published evidence that GM labels will increase the cost of food. Reports, funded by industry, advocacy and consumer groups have estimated cost ranges between zero and US$500 per year for a family of four.

But the Campbell’s company has publicly stated the cost of labeling is negligible. If there are costs, they will not be passed on to consumers. Company spokesman Tom Hushen said, “To be clear, there will be no price increase as a result of Vermont or national GMO labeling for Campbell products.”

Changing corporate positions

That leaves only Marchant and Cardineu’s fifth point: the risks and benefits of GM foods. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine earlier this year released an exhaustive report on GM foods and found there is no evidence of health risks from genetically modified ingredients.

But pro-GM labeling advocates have not used the GM safety issue in their arguments. Instead, they focus on consumers’ right to know what is in their food and how it is produced.

Several major corporations, which have previously spent millions of dollars to defeat mandatory GM labels, have indicated they will label their products or have already. Campbell’s, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and ConAgra had said they would label their products nationwide in order to be in compliance with Vermont’s anticipated law. PepsiCo and Frito Lay have quietly begun to label already without public fanfare.

Campbell’s President and CEO Denise Morrison said in a statement, “Our decision (to label) was guided by our Purpose; rooted in our consumer-first mindset; and driven by our commitment to transparency – to be open and honest about our food. I truly believe it is the right thing to do for consumers and for our business.”

However, the Senate proposal, if it comes into law, does not make it easy for consumers to actually find out whether a product has GM contents at the supermarket.

One food manufacturing company may choose a QR code, another a label, another a symbol and another a toll-free number. If consumers do not see a disclosure using words, as the Vermont law requires, they look for a symbol. If they don’t see a symbol, they scan the product with a smartphone or call a telephone number. If that doesn’t provide information, they go to a website. For a consumer purchasing multiple products, this will be a cumbersome process. While it has been said that Vermont’s law, in isolation, may cause chaos for industry, as proposed, the compromise bill will cause chaos for consumers seeking more transparency in the food system.

In the months ahead, we will see whether the Senate bill is turned into law and how food makers choose to comply with any disclosure requirements. But given the strong consumer support for labeling, it is unlikely that the debate over GM food labeling will die down.

The ConversationJane Kolodinsky, Professor and Chair Community Development and Applied Economics, University of Vermont

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why public health scholars should study pornography

By Emily Rothman, Boston University.

On April 19, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert signed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis.

The resolution has sparked debate, but for most public health experts, the idea that pornography has some relevance to our health as a society isn’t too controversial.

This topic is in my wheelhouse. I am a public health researcher and teacher, and have conducted several studies on adolescent pornography use. Personally, I do think pornography is a public health issue; it has implications for sexual and reproductive health promotion, and violence prevention.

In addition to my research on pornography, I instruct a graduate-level course on pornography as a public health issue at the Boston University School of Public Health. My students will be called upon to deliberate about whether and how to protect the public’s health – and what counts as overstepping their bounds.

So I teach them to think critically about the issue, to look past rhetoric, and to become critical consumers of research evidence. I teach them that it’s OK if they find themselves conflicted at times, because determining what’s dangerous or healthful for the public is not always simple.

Why I started researching pornography

My own research on pornography and adolescent health was sparked by an unanticipated finding in a dating violence study. In 2011, I was analyzing data from a sample of more than 300 Boston-area 14-20-year-old girls, nearly half of whom had experienced physical or sexual abuse by a dating partner. Although the study wasn’t about pornography, 34 percent of the young people surveyed had seen pornography in the past month, and almost 11 percent reported having been forced or coerced to participate in a sexual behavior that the perpetrator saw in pornography. It seemed possible that pornography was a contributing factor to adolescent dating and sexual violence.

Teens watch porn because they are curious about sex. Teen with laptop image via

From there I undertook a qualitative research study. I interviewed 23 teenagers (16-18 years old) who had all seen pornography at least once in the past year. They told my research team what they watched, with whom, why, when, for what reasons and how they felt about it. A few themes emerged, and these underscored why pornography could be viewed as a public health issue.

First, they had seen a wide variety of pornography: for example, straight porn, three-ways, bondage, racially specific porn, humiliation porn, incest porn and what they called “rape porn.”

Second, most watched it because they were curious. They wanted to know how sex worked – what to do. More than one reported wanting to know what sounds to make with her boyfriend. One boy wanted to know how to please his girlfriend, and one came away with the understanding that lots of women have orgasms from anal sex.

Third, there were several who had experienced some painful and uncomfortable sex because their partners wanted to imitate pornography.

And finally, their parents didn’t know how to talk to them about pornography.

Interviewing this small group of teenagers was only a starting point. I next undertook a quantitative study. A sample of 72 male and female teenagers, 15-17 years old, completed a survey about their pornography viewing.

Pornography was the number one source of information about sex for the teens in this sample. Moreover, more than half (51 percent) had been asked to watch pornography together by a dating or sexual partner, and 44 percent had been asked to do something sexual that a partner saw in pornography.

We also found that adolescent dating abuse victimization was associated with more frequent pornography use, viewing pornography in the company of others and being asked to perform a sexual act that a partner saw in pornography. Approximately 50 percent of dating abuse victims and 32 percent of nonvictims reported that they had been asked to engage in a sexual act that their partner saw in pornography, and 58 percent of all youth who were asked did not feel happy to have been asked.

The results of the study are not generalizeable, and we can’t make causal inferences. Nevertheless, the findings help shape future research questions about the possible connection between adolescent pornography use and experiences of abuse. The research convinced me that it is worthwhile for public health practitioners and scholars to continue to ask how pornography may be related to adolescent health.

Teaching students to go beyond ‘pro’ and ‘con.’ Lecture hall via

What I teach my students about pornography

A few students heard about my research and volunteered to assist me with it. They were interested in more formal training on how to think about pornography using their public health perspective, so I developed a class. To my knowledge, it was the first course on pornography at a school of public health.

My course on pornography and public health covers a wide variety of topics. We study sexually explicit material and obscenity throughout history, such as the “porn wars” of the 1980s, or how, historically, anti-porn efforts have been used to persecute gay and lesbian people. We also examine legislation designed to limit children’s access to Internet pornography, the evidence base on pornography and violent aggression, the link between sex trafficking and pornography and the occupational health and labor conditions of paid pornography performers.

Throughout the course, I encourage students to analyze the rigor of pornography research, to identify gaps in the knowledge base and to propose innovative policy and programmatic solutions that might mitigate some of the harms we suspect are affecting the public. For example, a few students pointed out there is insufficient evidence to conclude that pornography is “biologically addictive” (though the Utah resolution references this possibility). And some students began developing a “pornography literacy curriculum” for teenagers with me that will be pilot tested this summer.

Interestingly, the Utah resolution suggests that the citizenry needs education about pornography, but the state forbids public schools to educate youth about the intricacies of sex, or advocate contraception, homosexuality or sex outside of marriage. Instead, Utah uses what is called “abstinence only” sex education, which isn’t the kind promoted by public health experts.

While there is a lot of debate about pornography and its potential impact on youth and adults, even people on opposite sides of the issue seem to agree that adolescents deserve education about sex – and that pornography isn’t the right way for them to learn. This is one of the reasons it makes sense to think about the public health implications of pornography.

We need to keep studying pornography and public health

Questions also remain about how adults are affected by sexually explicit media. Some research suggests it may cause both men and women to become dissatisfied with their own bodies and with their sexual relationships. The ideas that the availability of Internet pornography is having a significant impact on individuals’ interest in having sex in person, or that most people who watch pornography will inevitably seek out more and more shocking material, remain questions, though.

Engaging researchers trained in psychology, sociology, sexology, medicine, neuroscience, economics and public health in rigorous pornography scholarship will help generate evidence to guide future public policy decisions.

The ConversationEmily Rothman, Associate Professor of Community Health Services , Boston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Straight A students may not be the best innovators

Matthew Mayhew, New York University and Benjamin S. Selznick, New York University

Demand for innovation is at an all-time high. Innovation is now recognized as being key to economic growth strategies in the United States, Canada and countries in the European Union.

As a result, there is an increased need to understand what drives innovation. Certainly traditional research and development, funded by both the private and public sectors, continues to remain a primary source of new ideas and products. But innovation demands innovators.

So where do innovators come from? And how do they acquire their skills?

One place – perhaps among the best – is college. Over the past seven years, my research has explored the influence of college on preparing students with the capacity, desire and intention to innovate.

In this time we’ve learned that many academic and social experiences matter quite a bit; grades, however, do not matter as much.

What influences student innovation?

Our ongoing research, an example of which can be found here, has surveyed over 10,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students in four countries – the United States, Canada, Germany and Qatar.

Our sample includes a wide diversity of students: those in fields of study often associated with innovation and entrepreneurship (e.g., business, engineering) as well as more traditional majors (e.g., arts, humanities, education); those from differing races/ethnicities and gender identifications; those from different socioeconomic and political backgrounds; and those from families that already include, or do not include, entrepreneurs.

To learn more, we asked students about their innovation intentions and capacities, their higher education experiences, and their background characteristics. We also administered a “personality inventory” to address the question of whether innovators are born or made.

Classroom practices can make a difference.
Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND

We conducted a series of statistical analyses that allowed us to isolate the influence of any one individual attribute (e.g., classroom experiences, GPA, personality, gender, etc.) on our innovation outcomes.

Here is what our analyses have revealed so far:

  • Classroom practices make a difference: students who indicated that their college assessments encouraged problem-solving and argument development were more likely to want to innovate. Such an assessment frequently involves evaluating students in their abilities to create and answer their own questions; to develop case studies based on readings as opposed to responding to hypothetical cases; and/or to make and defend arguments. Creating a classroom conducive to innovation was particularly important for undergraduate students when compared to graduate students.
  • Faculty matters – a lot: students who formed a close relationship with a faculty member or had meaningful interactions (i.e., experiences that had a positive influence on one’s personal growth, attitudes and values) with faculty outside of class demonstrated a higher likelihood to be innovative. When a faculty member is able to serve as a mentor and sounding board for student ideas, exciting innovations may follow.

Interestingly, we saw the influence of faculty on innovation outcomes in our analyses even after accounting for a student’s field of study, suggesting that promoting innovation can happen across disciplines and curricula. Additionally, when we ran our statistical models using a sample of students from outside the United States, we found that faculty relationships were still very important. So, getting to know a faculty member might be a key factor for promoting innovation among college students, regardless of where the education takes place or how it is delivered.

  • Peer networking is effective: outside the classroom, students who connected course learning with social issues and career plans were also more innovative. For example, students who initiated informal discussions about how to combine the ideas they were learning in their classes to solve common problems and address global concerns were the ones who most likely recognized opportunities for creating new businesses or nonprofit social ventures.

Being innovative was consistently associated with the college providing students with space and opportunities for networking, even after considering personality type, such as being extroverted.

Networking remained salient when we analyzed a sample of graduate students – in this instance, those pursuing M.B.A. degrees in the United States. We take these findings as a positive indication that students are spending their “out-of-class” time learning to recognize opportunities and discussing new ideas with peers.

Who are the innovators?

On the basis of our findings, we believe that colleges might be uniquely positioned to cultivate a new generation of diverse innovators.

Counter to the Thiel Fellowship, an initiative that pays individuals to step out of college in order to become entrepreneurs, our work supports efforts by colleges and universities to combine classroom learning with entrepreneurial opportunities and to integrate education with innovation.

One of our most interesting findings was that as GPAs went down, innovation tended to go up. Even after considering a student’s major, personality traits and features of the learning environment, students with lower GPAs reported innovation intentions that were, on average, greater than their higher-GPA counterparts.

In short: GPA was associated with innovation, but maybe not in the direction you’d think.

Not GPAs, but being motivated, makes a difference.
THINK Global School, CC BY-NC-ND

Why might this be the case?

From our findings, we speculate that this relationship may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their college environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates.

Time spent in these areas might really benefit innovation, but not necessarily GPA.

Additionally, findings elsewhere strongly suggest that innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated – that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others.

We see this work as confirmation of our findings – grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts.

Perhaps, for these reasons, the head of people operations at Google has noted:

GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring.

Somewhat troubling, though in line with concerns that plague the entrepreneurship community, women were less likely to demonstrate innovation intentions than men, all else being equal.

This is a problem, especially given jarring statistics that venture capitalists are funding males – specifically white males – more than any other group.

Such findings also speak to the need for higher education to intervene and actively introduce the broadest range of individuals to educational experiences and environments that spur the generation and implementation of new ideas. Fresh and creative ideas, after all, are not restricted to any one gender, race or family background.

As we say in our forthcoming paper’s finding on gender:

Imagine the explosion of new processes and products that would emerge in a world where half the population was socialized to believe that it could and should innovate.

Imagine indeed.

The Conversation

Matthew Mayhew, Associate Professor of Higher Education, New York University and Benjamin S. Selznick, Ph.D. candidate, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Image Credit: Daniel Foster/flickr, CC BY

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Are dating apps killing long-term relationships?

Skye C. Cleary, Columbia University

Online dating sites and apps are transforming relationships. More than 10 percent of American adults – and almost 40 percent of people who identify as “single and looking” – are using online dating websites and apps.

But what might someone from the 19th century think about this unique fusion of technology and romance?

In the late 1800s, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a lot to say about love. Arguing that society was heading toward nihilism – that is, a world without meaning, morals and values – Nietzsche thought that romantic love was frivolous, with friendship acting as a much stronger foundation for relationships.

From a Nietzschean perspective, the rise of dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Grindr that encourage us to “swipe” or judge potential lovers in a nanosecond could be cited as examples of a society that has become obsessed with pleasure and instant gratification.

Nietzsche also said that instinctive judgments are misleading because they “pronounce their Yes and No before the understanding can speak.” Furthermore, to act impulsively is decadent and hedonistic, and these are “signposts to nihilism.”

So does the rise of online dating in our culture signal an embrace of self-indulgence? And does it come at the expense of long-term relationships?

The research is mixed, but a few dominant themes emerge, including findings showing that “swiping right” might not be the best way to find a true match.

Quick picks

Tinder certainly isn’t killing romance – at least, that of the ephemeral kind.

More choices, more relationships, and more socializing open up new kinds of opportunities that wouldn’t have existed without dating apps and websites. A 2012 study found that the Internet has allowed users to find partners more easily, especially homosexuals and middle-aged people who operate in a “thin market.”

The big question is whether marriages that originate online work out in the long run. Here, the research is mixed. Some studies suggest that American marriages that begin online are slightly less prone to collapse than those who met offline. Other studies find the opposite.

Nonetheless, there’s an inherent problem with how these online relationships begin – at least, from a Nietzschean perspective.


Why do public bathrooms make us so anxious, and why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Harvey Molotch, New York University

“Public” and “toilet” don’t go together, except when they must. And that “must” is the moment we’re not home – when we need to go and can’t hold it in any longer.

Only then do we face the predicament of having to perform a deeply private act in the presence of others.

Yet for one reason or another, American public bathrooms are often designed to make the experience exceedingly uncomfortable. Silence about the issue persists, largely because of cultural taboos that discourage any discussion about alleviating design flaws.

No room for “rest”

Our lives are ordinarily carried out through careful – indeed, exquisite – impression management. We adhere to a delicate etiquette of gesture, sound and scent, all so we can display ourselves as dignified, civilized human beings.

Enter: the toilet, which blunders in with sounds, smells and strangers. Hovering above it all is the deepest of pollutants, human waste – often in places where it’s not supposed to be.

From earliest childhood (thank you, Professor Freud) we participate in the game of excrement as taboo. Any talk is handled through binary code: “Number One,” “Number Two” or the likes of pee and pooh. And as children we learn the shrieks of horror that can arise when things go awry.

We bear the burden of all this – and more – when we enter the so-called “restroom.” It’s no wonder we look for an escape. One solution is to just not go at all: we hold it in until we get home or at least to a more opportune setting.

Another strategy is to manipulate intake – eating and drinking – to align elimination with being home. For me, it’s akin to the Japanese art of bonsai: trimming a plant’s roots to shape what comes out the other end. It is a difficult skill to master, for which few of us have had proper instruction.

Privacy discouraged, by design

According to one survey, over 60% of respondents reported that they would delay using a public restroom if they felt like they didn’t have enough privacy.

The design of American public bathrooms can complicate the struggle for a modicum of privacy. In the US, stall enclosures typically have large bottom (and top) openings, along with peek-a-boo gaps at panel seams. The US is a distinctly open society; in virtually every country which has them, toilets have more solid enclosures, with stalls going closer to the ground and ceiling,

The US features probably arose from authorities’ concern, way back when, over what people might do if they had more privacy – specifically, drugs or sex (especially homosexual male sex).

Either way, it’s now expected that when we sit on a public toilet, we expose our feet to the occupant next door. Among other effects, this allows those who know us to make positive and precise identifications based on shoes: another blow to anonymity. Who hasn’t experienced the dread of a boss or colleague plopping down in an adjacent stall?

Anonymity, compromised.
‘Feet’ via

There can be strategies. Some choose restrooms where a colleague or classmate will less likely be present. That might mean going to a different building, floor or division. Others try to time visits for when nobody else will be around (although if everyone selects the same time, there could be comedic bathroom jams instead of circumvention). Of course, openly coordinating among one another to prevent such an outcome would be out of the question: your self-consciousness would be exposed.

Simple fixes like unisex bathrooms met with silence

Why haven’t industrial designers and architects stepped in to address some of these issues?

From knowing many of them, I believe they’d be eager to facilitate change: many would gladly make stall walls more substantial, while acoustic specialists would delight in muffling unpleasant sounds with the white noise of running water or music (why not opera, a la the fountains of Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel?)

Sinks and toilets could be combined into a single unit (such models exist in both Japan and Spain) so that the water from the sink enters into the toilet tank, where it is stored for the next flush. This lowers water use and yields hands that are clean before they touch the hardware of the stall exit. (No more opening locks with scrunches of toilet paper!)

Insulin users need a shelf to rest their syringe. Indeed, so do all intravenous drug users. And they need good enough lighting to both see their veins and avoid bloodying things up.

People from Middle Eastern cultures are accustomed to cleansing after defecation with water, often with a spray hose fixed to a wall adjacent to the toilet. (For them, wiping with paper disgusts.) Such preferences should be accommodated; given a chance, it may catch on with the wider public.

Public toilets invite recycling of all waste. And larger facilities, especially, should invite on-site recycling, with user-friendly displays of the process (show the plumbing, digesters and fittings through transparent pipes and walls). Use the toilet to press a wider public agenda.

And that goes for gender too. Gender segregation continues to deliver injustice. Women need more opportunities to go, a fact increasingly being reflected in changing building codes in the US and other countries. Now starting to appear on public policy agendas are the difficulties of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming. Some people are actually forced to use a bathroom designated for the opposite sex due to their situation: women caring for men (and vice versa), fathers for girls and other variations.

So why not open it up and let all genders share the same zone? It would yield a huge increase in space efficiency, while alleviating the long lines at the women’s rooms, which often occur as stalls remain empty in the men’s room. Integration might also enhance safety: more people would be on hand to act in case of emergency. Hanging a “women” sign over a door only keeps out men with good intentions. (After all, those with bad intentions won’t be impeded by a sign.)

Making change requires making talk. Unfortunately, “the talk” can be rather awkward – awkward for politicians to introduce change or for architects to convince clients to depart from custom. Having sat on many university building committees, I can report that not much time is devoted to the arrangements of restrooms; when it comes to the toilet and its surroundings, silence is business as usual.

Deprivations, some of them unspeakable, fill the void.

The Conversation

Harvey Molotch, Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies, New York University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Image Credit: Rory Finneren via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to do something good for your health? Try being generous

Ashley Whillans, University of British Columbia

Every day, we are confronted with choices about how to spend our money. Whether it’s thinking about picking up the tab at a group lunch or when a charity calls asking for a donation, we are faced with the decision to behave generously or not.

Research suggests that spending money on others can improve happiness, but can it also improve your physical health?

There is some evidence that donating time can improve physical health, but no one has looked at whether donating money has the same effect.

So my colleagues and I at the University of British Columbia decided to conduct an experiment to find out if spending money on others could lower blood pressure, which will be published in the journal Health Psychology in December.

Helping out.
ccbarr/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Helpful people might be healthier

A 1999 study examining whether volunteering had an effect on mortality provided initial evidence for an association between helping others and physical health. In the study, adults age 55 and older reported how many organizations they helped, how many hours they spent volunteering, and then underwent a physical exam.

Researchers controlled for several factors, including how healthy participants were when the study began and their available social support. After five years the adults who reported providing more help to others were 44% more likely to be alive.

In a more recent study, researchers measured blood pressure and volunteering once at baseline and again four years later. They found evidence that older adults who volunteered at least four hours per week in the 12 months prior to the baseline blood pressure measurement were less likely to develop high blood pressure four years later.

Additional studies suggest that volunteering is associated with greater physical health in part because volunteering helps to buffer against stress and prevents against declines in functional health, such as declines in walking speed and physical strength.

So does being helpful cause better health?