Correlation, Causation, & Teen Moms

High school sex ed, popular TV shows, and national PSAs would all have us believe that becoming a parent as a teenager (especially if you’re a girl) will cause tragic outcomes for both you and your child. In this post, Kim Cochran Kiesewetter helps explore the difference between causation and correlation to help in understanding how addressing social problems like teen pregnancy can get really complicated, really quickly.

Pregnant Woman in Swimsuit

“You’re supposed to be changing the world… not changing diapers.” “I never thought I would be a statistic.” These sayings, paired with pictures of coyly posed celebrities, are the crux of the Candie’s Foundation’s most recent campaign to prevent teen pregnancy. NYC’s approach is similar, replacing the celebrity photos with images of crying children beside tag lines like, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

Coupled with images from popular shows like MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, at this point most Americans would take for granted that being a teen parent is the cause of a long list of poor social outcomes from dropping out of high school to living in poverty to raising kids who have their own set of problems. However, social researchers would caution that just because a relationship exists between teen parenting and negative social outcomes doesn’t mean that one is necessarily causing the other. As we’re about to explore, proving that something caused something else isn’t as simple as it may seem at face value.

Understanding Causation v. Correlation

One of the best ways to be able to look at research critically is to understand the difference between causation and correlation. Causation means that Thing A is causing Thing B to happen (hence that nice root word of “cause”!). On the other hand, correlation means that Thing A and Thing B have a relationship with each other – they change together… but that’s it. A correlation can mean causation, but proving that Thing A causes Thing B, especially in social research, is harder than it might seem. It can appear obvious that teen parenting causes poor social outcomes, but there’s a lot of other factors involved that have to be considered before we can definitively prove causation in this situation.

One of those factors is known as time order – for teen parenting to cause poor social outcomes, like poverty, it must happen after the pregnancy. However, much research indicates that the majority of teen mothers come from backgrounds where their families were already poor and that the pregnancy itself had little effect on economic outcomes. This research indicates that teen pregnancy doesn’t cause poverty, but conversely, that it’s actually poverty that is causing teen pregnancy (a phenomenon in research known as reverse causality, where the researcher thinks Thing A is causing Thing B, but really Thing B is causing Thing A). Outside of poverty, there’s other factors associated with teen pregnancy, like the increased likelihood of dropping out of high school, that appear to be potential cases of reverse causality as well.

None of this is to say that trying to get teens to think through the impact a pregnancy may have on their life is not a noble goal and worthy of campaigning to make happen. However, the current approaches blame teen parents for the poor social outcomes associated with this family structure without considering that there might be bigger social forces at play. The problem with this is that it stigmatizes teen parents without providing any real solutions. Collectively, as a culture, we have reached a consensus that teen parent = bad, but that’s essentially as far as we have gone with the discussion. If things like poverty and doing poorly in school lead to teen pregnancy, we would need to address those issues in order to really prevent teen pregnancies. Until we are willing to more definitively explore the issues of causation v. correlation involved in this social problem, arguably, much of the effort to prevent it will be misguided.

Dig Deeper

  1. Discuss your reaction to the two ad campaigns linked to in the first paragraph in the above article. Do you think these approaches are effective at preventing teen pregnancies? Why/why not?
  2. Many have argued that both of the ad campaigns discussed in this article shame teen parents, exaggerate the size of the problem, or just make parenting sound like a terrible thing (see for instance this and this). Do you agree or disagree with these arguments? Explain your answers.
  3. Can you think of other approaches to preventing teen pregnancy that would be effective?
  4. Read this article, exploring the relationship between teen motherhood and poverty. What did Furstenberg’s study conclude about teen motherhood and poverty?

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