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5 Key Findings from the longest-running study on human development

Following 14,000 people since the 1940s, these cohort studies offer insights into parenting, education, health, and the impact of poverty.

Credit: Getty Images.

The first British National Birth Cohort study was launched in 1946, in order to determine why the birthrate had been falling in the UK since the middle of the 19th century. Researchers ended up gathering data on nearly 14,000 babies. They included almost everyone born in March of that year in England, Wales, and Scotland. Researchers followed participants throughout the course of their lives and still are.

Today, the project is run by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and is known as the National Survey of Health and Development (NSHD). Data collection continues periodically. This is the longest running study on human development in the world, and the process has been repeated with subsequent generations. Other cohort studies took place with children born during 1958, 1970, and 2000-2001. The amount of data collected could fill terabytes of computer space. Of course, that's the point. Such a large and long-term data set offers unique insights into human life.

The world's longest running human development study impresses the importance of proper parenting. Credit: Getty Images.

The original longitudinal study has changed over time. When participants were between the ages of two and four, researchers looked at socioeconomic level and its effect on growth, development, and morbidity. Between ages 5-15, researchers included educational records and looked at their academic performance and attainment.

From 16-31, they continued gathering health data but included records of delinquency and educational outcomes in terms of employment, occupation, and income. Lastly, through middle adulthood, ages 32-53, investigators focused on physical and mental health. Original participants were examined a total of 23 times over the course of their lifetime.

Those in the first study turned 70 last year. Over the course of their lives, they've given blood, skin, and DNA samples. They've taken IQ tests and filled out lengthy questionnaires. As a result of their dedication and researchers' efforts, life in the UK has improved dramatically. The original study in its initial phase laid bare inequities in the medical treatment among the poor in obstetrics and childhood diseases. This situation vastly improved afterwards.

One of the things the study was supposed to weigh in on was the Nature vs. Nurture debate. How much does being born into poverty for instance, really set a person back? Can we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps or merely mitigate the damage done?

This intergenerational study has touched the lives of almost everyone in Britain. Credit: Getty Images.

Here are 5 Key Findings:

1) Success

Being born into poverty is extremely restrictive, in terms of how far up the ladder one can climb. Something that makes an enormous difference is parenting. Surprisingly, parental attitudes are highly influential to a child's success, both in school and later on in life. These include whether or not parents believe in a just world and whether they think hard work actually pays off in the end. If the answer to both is yes, their children tend to excel.

2) Parenting

Parents are the most important aspect when it comes to childhood cognitive development, education outcomes, and occupational success. Early experiences, particularly in the first few years, are crucial and in a way they set the tone for a child's life. Throughout a child's life, parents should remain engaged and interested in them and what they're doing. The style and kind of parenting a child receives makes a huge difference. Those who talk often with their child, really listen to them, and who are warm and loving toward them, see their offspring perform better and achieve higher scholastic and occupational outcomes.

3) Poverty

The study revealed how divided Britain is by class. In the late 1940s, poor mothers were more likely to experience stillbirth than those in other rich nations. Across the board even today, those born into poverty are worse off health-wise and earn less. They are also more likely to become obese, which comes with many subsequent health risks. One worrisome find is that over half of the UK's millennial generation has been touched by poverty, the latest cohort study finds.

4) Health

Just like with poverty, serious illness early on in life usually signals poorer health in adulthood. Poverty in and of itself however is a significant determinant in health outcomes. Those who came from a disadvantaged background tended to have a higher BMI in adulthood and often gained weight as they aged. They were also more prone to higher blood pressure, and at greater risk of serious diseases and a shorter lifespan, on average. Those from an underprivileged background didn't have the same chances to become a healthy adult by age 36, the study found.

5) Education

Disadvantaged children, specifically those who come from poor or working class backgrounds, are more likely to struggle in school. Poor three year-olds were found to be almost a full year behind better-off peers the same age. Proper parenting however, was shown to help mitigate the damage this might cause and improve a child's chances of enjoying good health and success. Regular bedtimes resulted in higher grades and better behavior in school. Reading to children everyday was crucial, while children who read for their own pleasure by age 5 showed higher scholastic achievement later on. Parents who taught their children the letters and numbers, took them out to different places such as a museum or a visit with relatives, and gave them novel experiences, had children who were more likely to thrive later on.

Much of this seems like self-evident advice—nurture your children. However the resounding finding across all aspects of life is that economic disparity leaves a permanent scar on people's wellbeing and future prospects. It's a reminder for why closing wealth gaps is crucial to so many people, and should be every government's next moonshot. As economist Jeffrey Sachs says:

"I believe we absolutely should have such bold goals for our country. By 2030 let's cut the poverty at least by half. By 2030 let's cut the inequality in our country decisively so it's like the northern European countries. Not like this god-awful inequality that we have in the United States... that is what's degrading American society. Not just the technical issues. Not just the rising inequality but this spirit that you're a winner or you're a loser. And if you're a loser get out of the way. That's Ayn Rand talking. It's ugly and we've had enough of it."

To learn more about this study, click below or watch the TED talk:

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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