Saturday, January 15, 2005


As in "Independent of Data"

A curious article indeed in the book section of today's Independent of London. Titled "Do Children's Self-Help Books Really Help?", it leads off with the claim that "Children are being targeted by the self-help book industry, with the latest DIY therapy advice aimed at young people rather than angst-ridden adults," before purporting to examine this alleged trend.

Let's sharpen our editorial pencils and have a look, shall we? It then claims that:

Manuals on obesity, teenage problems and overcoming bullying are stacking up in the self-help sections in bookshops. Publishers and booksellers are cashing in on research that shows a generation of children and teenagers finding life increasingly hard to cope with.

The suicide rate among children is three times higher than it was 20 years ago, and youngsters as young as five are deliberately self-harming. Ten per cent of callers to the helpline Parentline Plus say their children have had suicidal thoughts.

There are no numbers given to back up this "stacking up" of titles. Nor are any financial figure or sales figures of books produced to show the "cashing in" occuring. No publisher or trade group appears to have been asked.

Very well. But what about that alarming suicide rate? Surely that indicates a tide of despair needing self-help? Funny thing, that. The awfully round-sounding "three times" figure is not sourced; nor are the ages of "children" defined. I could find no such figure in a brief trawl of UK government statistics. What I did find was some most interesting charts at the Oxford University Centre for Suicide Research. Note this chart on male suicides: the youngest cohort listed (15-24 age group) shows a large jump in suicide rates in the early to mid-1980s -- not very happy economic years in Britain, you'll recall -- followed by levelling or decline from 1988 onwards. And the female chart shows very few changes at all. In other words, our Independent writer might have fiddled her x-axis rather selectively. She might more accurately have said "The suicide rate has declined over the last 16 years." But I don't suppose that is so exciting. And as for the 10% Parentline figure: interesting, if also rather round. But compared to what previous rate?

Onward: the article soon proceeds to a discussion of self-help books in general.

Self-help books are big business in Britain, with more than 400,000 sold last year. The online retailer Amazon says self-help books account for six of its 20 best-sellers and the industry analyst Book Marketing says two-thirds of the buyers are women. Titles include Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps and If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?

Well, at least there's a number here. But again: compared to what? One major novel alone -- Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime -- has hit 1.2 million copies sold in UK since May 2003, vastly outselling the figure quoted here for an entire genre. Perhaps we should also conclude that the nation is overrun by autistic teenaged detectives?

Fully half of the article is hereafter dedicated to a roundup of popular adult self-help titles, without any explanation of why they are conflating a discussion of these with a piece on children's self-help. To put this in perspective: imagine announcing that your article is about children's fiction, and then spending half your word count talking about Philip Roth.

Two experts -- a psychiatrist and a teen counsellor -- are also duly quoted in the piece about their doubts on the effectiveness of self-help books. Fair enough: someone made a couple phone calls there, so that's something. Now, here's who was not quoted: any parents. Or publishers. Or booksellers. Or authors.

Or any of the children using the books.

The piece ends by naming 5 children's self-help books and giving brief description quoted, without sourcing, though presumably from the book jackets. There's no indication that the correspondent stirred herself to crack open any of these books, or indeed to even answer the question her own article's title raised. Given that we are discussing products purportedly aimed at the well-being of vulnerable children, it seems a rather serious matter deserving a serious answer.

So: do children's self-help books really help? It'd be an interesting question for a journalist to look into. Maybe the Independent should try hiring one someday.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?