Teenage fathers and mental health: a true story unfairly reported

Mind

20th February 2015

There’s a difference between something being true, and something being fair, as I’m sure you realise. I’m going to look at a story that is, on the face of it, probably true, but because of how it’s portrayed, less than fair.

The story is that the children of teenage fathers are more likely to suffer from certain congenital health problems, including autism, schizophrenia and spina bifida. This is because, according to research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and contrary to what has been believed, the rate of new mutations (which cause these problems) in sperm does not go up in a simple line as men get older. Instead, very young fathers have a high rate of mutation, which drops to a lower level in full adulthood and then only rises back to the teenage rate as the man gets older.

This story has been reported in the Mail and the Times, among other places, and they report this stuff pretty accurately, as far as I am qualified to judge. But the way it’s reported is interesting: a ’30 per cent higher risk of children being born with defects’, according to the Mail.

Now, that is, technically, true. In fact more than technically. It’s completely true: the likelihood of a teenage father having a child with de novo mutations is about 1.3 times the likelihood of a father in his twenties having the same. But you see what I’ve done there? Something being 1.3 times as likely sounds a lot less alarming than something being 30 per cent more likely, at least to me.

Maybe it doesn’t to you. How about this? The actual likelihood of having a child with a genetic abnormality is about 1.5 per cent for twenty-something fathers. The likelihood of having a child with a damaging mutation is about 2 per cent for teenage fathers. So in terms of percentage POINTS, it’s gone up by 0.5. Does that sound as scary? (I should admit that the Mail does use the 1.5 per cent figure in the 17th paragraph, but they know very few readers make it to there.)

Or how about this? Your odds of your child NOT having one of these disorders, if you have that child in your twenties or thirties, is about 98.5 per cent. Your odds of your child not having one of these disorders if you have that child in your teens is about 98 per cent. If you run the same basic maths that gives you a 30 per cent increased risk (you know: change divided by original total times 100) you’ll find that your “risk” of having a healthy child is lowered by a whopping 0.51 per cent.

Or to put that one final way: for every 200 children born to adult fathers, you would expect three cases of some genetic abnormality; in teenage fathers, you would expect four. The 30 per cent rise relates to one more case of some abnormality in every 200 births.

Which is definitely worth knowing, from a population health and medical point of view. But from the point of view of an individual parent, is it really going to change your decision-making, put like that? Maybe it will be a factor, but it’s not something to be alarmed by, particularly. Its impact will be dwarfed by other factors, such as your own health, or whether you smoke or drink heavily.

There are lots of good reasons to want young people to put off having children until later. The most obvious one is that people who have children young tend to have their own life opportunities somewhat limited. Maybe the increased risk of congenital abnormalities is a good reason too. But if you state the increased risk in the scariest, most dramatic way possible, you aren’t helping anyone make up their minds.

This stuff matters. Research has shown that people’s decisions are influenced by the framing of statistics like this. A classic psychological study found that people told that a drug had a one in three chance of saving people were more likely to suggest using that drug that people who were told it had a two in three chance of not saving them. We aren’t designed to assess probability and risk, so the way you frame it matters.

Tom Chivers is a senior writer at BuzzFeed UK

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