Monday, April 6, 2009

The Evolution of Dora the Explorer: A Look at Gender Stereotyping in Children's Toys

Growing up, I have always been surrounded by girls. With three little sisters and almost all female cousins, it would be an understatement to say that I stumble upon the color pink from time to time. In fact, I constantly find myself in a sea of the cheery hue: magenta dresses, cotton-candy blankets, and dolls with rosy red cheeks fill my sisters’ bedrooms. Most would agree that this is normal for little girls; however, as society becomes increasingly liberal, we have seen a public outcry concerning the topic of gender shaping. A handful of parents are trying to steer away from the stereotypes that we have fallen victim to, usually by avoiding gender-specific colors (like pink and blue) and opting for more neutral colors (like yellow) when purchasing items for their children. They similarly turn to figures that they believe to be empowering, like “Dora the Explorer,” a cartoon girl who, according to the Morning Sentinel, is known for her “insatiable interest in science, cartography, adventure and problem solving.” However, in recent news, Dora has unfortunately traded in her shorts and sneakers for jewelry and a frilly dress complete with delicate ballet slippers, as seen in the image above right. Infuriated parents are arguing that her new mature look is a downright mistake, as it goes against the very nature of Dora. Blogger Amy Jussel (Shaping Youth) claims, “it cues girls to an even worse message by conveying that girls can start out as unique, brave, active, indie spirits, but behaviorally, by the time they edge into tweenage years, they’d better march like lemmings into the beauty biz.” Given the fresh outcry on the discussion of gender stereotypes and toys, this week while exploring the blogosphere I decided to comment on a blog post, “Barbie is Freakishly Thin, Sure, But She’s a Toy Not a Role Model” by Tina Kells from NowPublic, to discuss the effect of toys as role models for children. Next, as this spurred my interest in analyzing the marketing side of the argument, I commented on another blog post, “Stereotypes are Alive and Well in Your Toystore” by the Fairly Odd Mother on her blog (Fairly Odd Mother). Each comment appears below and on the respective blogs as well.

“Barbie is Freakishly Thin, Sure, But She’s a Toy Not a Role Model"


Seeing that you are writing about toys being interpreted as role models, I am sure you have encountered the recent controversy surrounding the Nickelodeon character, “Dora the Explorer.” A once spunky, shorts-wearing adventurer, this little character’s makers are now aging her into a tween. Parents are irate and have quickly conjured up petitions to end the evolution of Dora, who they claim is a positive influence for their children. I admire your blog post since you are one of the few people whose unique view collides with the ideal that toys are influential role models. In fact, your opinion may actually serve to reassure many concerned mothers and fathers, because while you worshipped Barbie at one point in time, you have managed to maintain a healthy perception of body image throughout your life. I do agree with you that “it is too simple to blame a 50 year old toy doll.” Indeed, more tangible factors (like real women) probably have a stronger impact on a girl’s idea of what she should aspire to be like. However, I do not think it is completely far-fetched to consider that Barbie may actually wield the power to engender negative thought patterns into young girl’s minds. In one study, Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5-8 Year Olds, author Suzan Ive states, “dolls provide a tangible image of the body that can be internalized as part of the child’s developing self-concept and body image.” In Ive’s study, she discovered that in other recent research, it has been found that girls’ desire for thinness emerges around age 6 and that dolls like Barbie, because of their iconic status, are likely to act as salient role models, at least for very young girls. In carrying out her study, Ive was correct. She states in the Discussion and Conclusion section of her research, “[Findings] showed that very young girls experience heightened body dissatisfaction after exposure to Barbie doll images but not after exposure to Emme doll (or control) images.” In other psychology studies in the past, it has similarly been found that children who play violent video games are later proven to be more aggressive, even though they are merely playing a “game” and not reenacting reality. Unfortunately though, not all children are able to separate fantasy play from realism as you did, and so I just hope you do not underestimate the power of social images, even if they are simply toys. With the studies presented, do you still believe people are crazy to blame a 50 year old doll?

“Stereotypes are Alive and Well in Your Toystore”


Fairly Odd Mother,

I appreciate your thoroughly dedicated post concerning the twisted marketing strategies that even young children are the targets of today. As our culture has become more freethinking and tolerant, we have been reassured that girls are just as good as boys and that they too can do anything. However, the very sociocultural message that we pride ourselves on in the name of equality is not so much a truth in our marketing campaigns and super-stores—not even our own homes. As you make clear in the images in your post, advertisements narrow-mindedly depict girls as dainty, fashion-obsessed, and mothers-to-be, while boys are portrayed as competitive, sports-loving, and noisy (see image left). At home, parents only serve to either push their children into more “appropriate” gender-play roles, or the opposite, such as the mother “quaking in fear that her young son had asked for a toy kitchen.” I agree with you that parents are partly to blame, for they are the ones that continue to buy their daughters dollhouses and their sons toy guns. And, since you so candidly point out Target’s Spring 2009 catalog in your blog, you too realize the role that marketing strategists play in this ongoing battle. Just recently, as discussed in a blog called Shaping Youth, Viacom bought the rights to “Dora The Explorer,” and decided to morph her science-loving character into a girly-girl. Doctors Lyn Mikel-Brown and Sharon Lamb (Packaging Girlhood) mourn this decision, saying that now “a bunch of greedy corporate execs own [Dora] and can use her image, re-MAKE her image, in any way they see fit to make money. But we know the truth. If the original Dora grew up… She’d develop her map reading skills and imagine the places she could go.”

According to an article titled Playing Fair by Dorothy Lepkowska of The Guardian, “there has never been greater gender stereotyping in the production and marketing of toys than now.” Intriguingly though, the author introduces a third contender in the who-is-to-blame game, and that is biology. “The levels of male and female hormones in an expectant mother may result in children being born predisposed to certain play preferences,” says psychologist professor Melissa Hines. In my personal opinion, I think these various hypotheses are all valid to some degree. Children may be born with an inclined desire for gender specific toys, but with big corporations so adamant on catering separately towards boys and girls, and parents topping the cake by buying these gender delineated toys, we are trapped in a cycle. My question to you is, how do you think we can break free from this cycle? And, what do you suppose is the most influential of the factors to blame?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Current Economic Crisis: Positive and Negative Consequence for Children

The United States economy has plummeted to its lowest point since the Great Depression, with the unemployment rate currently at an astonishing 8.1 percent—the highest over the past twenty-five years. In such a financial upheaval, many adults slump into just precisely that—a great and woeful depression. Fifty-three year old Wanda Dunn, whose house had recently fallen into foreclosure, set her home ablaze before committing suicide inside of it. Even more shocking is the story of Ervin Lupoe, the unemployed father of five who shot his children and wife to death before taking his own life. Clearly the turmoil of the economy has caused extreme stress and tragedy for many Americans over the past year. And yet, as much as we hear about the wretched suicides and job layoffs in the media, we rarely are informed of how the current economic state is affecting the children of our country. From abortion, to childhood depression, to substance abuse, it seems that the economy does take its toll on the younger demographic, and not at a pretty cost. While some on the other side of the argument contend that the doomed economy can actually benefit children positively, causing them to become more resilient and allowing them to learn to connect with others and appreciate more, the negative factors of a meager economy greatly outweigh the positive. Only those who have the resources and time to succeed in a down-falling economy will triumph, but the reality is that most families are not opportunely fortunate during a recession.

As a result of layoffs and salary cuts, children and adolescents are impacted on various levels. In fact, some babies are not even seeing the light of day at all, as many couples are postponing pregnancy due to their slimmed down bank accounts. According to Melissa Schorr, birth rates tend to drop in times of economic uncertainty, and how far the birth rate falls depends on how severe the financial crunch turns out to be. On the same note, abortions are on the rise even though some women are struggling to afford contraception and other related medical procedures. It is a double-edged sword with less women eligible to pay for birth control, but more abortions being requested as a result of couples unable to afford families. However, as for those that are forced to deal with the reality of the present economy, it appears even children are no strangers to the stressors of the financial crisis. Towards the end of the past year, as the country slumped further into a recession, an article found online clearly describes an unfortunate phenomenon—childhood depression. It involves persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness as well as mood changes (see image right). Unlike adults though, depression may be expressed more so through persistent anger or irritability as well as angry ‘acting out’ behaviors. Significant changes in peer relationships, self-mutilating behavior and abuse of alcohol or drugs may also be seen in those who are extremely depressed.

Children are prone to depression and/or substance abuse when exposed to familial changes like job loss or move. The Henry Ford News describes them as often able to "detect signs that something is wrong at home and if left uninformed about their parents' employment or economic status, [they] may become overwhelmed with negative thoughts.” Similarly, as found in “Youth at Risk,” it is hypothesized that adolescents enmeshed in a struggling economy are more at jeopardy for experimenting with drugs and alcohol (compared to usual circumstances). One reason may be that while under extreme financial pressure, parents care most about making ends meet and tend to focus less on the everyday activities and the whereabouts of their sons and daughters. Robin Testerman, the director of Children Center in Surry County, laments, “We are seeing parents having to leave their young [kids] unsupervised because they cannot afford daycare and have little or no family support.” The outcome is that some are finding themselves involved in unfortunate situations. Says Testerman, “kids are exposed to more things like text messaging and the influence of the Internet. Parents are the anti-drug— [children need] positive parental involvement that deters drinking and substance abuse.” And yet, the entirety of the problem is that parental involvement is what lacks during these hard times. Moreover, what makes the situation even direr is when they themselves turn to drugs such as prescription pills to deal with daily tension. If mothers and fathers indulge in substance abuse, their children may soon follow, viewing it as a coping mechanism that is simply acceptable.

Even adolescents that are not as harshly impacted by the economic downturn still must make regrettable adjustments to their futures. described yesterday how college-bound seniors are coping with the current state of affairs. While one enthusiastic high schooler once aimed for a racially diverse university that would provide him “flavor,” he is now scouring for affordable schools that grant scholarships. Another bright-eyed senior dreamed of attending college in Colorado, where she would “set [her] own trail.” However, with the price of tuition steadily rising, she is going to have to settle for a cheaper in-state school. Evidently then, adults are not the only ones feeling the weight of the financial crisis bear down on them. With parents being able to give less, their children are even more worried than ever about getting jobs at an earlier age and providing for themselves. Is this a good thing? Some advocates (like Anderson Cooper) argue that yes, it is, believing that the economic slump actually presents positive opportunities for children. John Rosemond of the Detroit Free Press candidly wrote last week that we are a generation of consumers not contributors, and perhaps the economy will “force parents to cut back on after school trivia, let their home cleaning and yard maintenance services go, and put their kids to work.” It is true that maybe the financial crisis can help young people learn the value of a dollar, and may force them to start performing “chores” again (see image left). Also, children learn how to deal with adverse situations when they do not receive all the material goods they once did, a forum for building resilience according to “4 Ways Bad Economy Benefits Children.” Says the author, “Research shows that children who grow up receiving a never-ending stream of stuff are less grateful for what they have.” He believes that having less superfluous material goods will implement more familial connectedness and bonding. And, while this surely may be true for those parents who have the resources to spend more time at home and focusing on their parenting skills, it is probably more realistic that, as of now, the majority of parents are working double time and are not there to supervise and ingrain moral values into their offspring.

Essentially the financial crisis we are currently experiencing has a dark and light side, a yin and yang of both positive and negative factors affecting children, depending on the individual situation of each family. Some may thrive under the neo-simplistic nature of current living, while others may bear the brunt of these struggling times. Unfortunately though, the latter situation is probably more realistic given the amount of stress that families are under due to the failing nature of our once glorious economy. While it would be fantastic if all parents could use their withering budgets to get their children to engage in more activities outdoors (rather than purchasing pricy videogames for them), and spending more time as a family unit, this is probably only a possibility for a small minority of the population. The rest of the country will have to hang on tightly until the future starts to look brighter.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To Eat Or Not To Eat: Exploring Food Disorders in Young Children

When constantly surrounded by college students, it is easy to notice and to point out the prevalence of eating disorders among young women. This is not new information, and most people are aware of the deteriorating natures of such diseases. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. And while one would think that weight would not be an issue in the younger demographic, unfortunately, that view is wrong. Fifty percent of girls between the ages of eleven and thirteen see themselves as overweight, while eighty percent of thirteen year olds have attempted to lose weight. Even more shocking states (a website for eating disorders): "40% of nine year olds have already dieted and we are beginning to see four and five year olds expressing their need to diet.” With these staggering statistics in mind, my purpose this week was aimed at exploring the blogosphere for information concerning eating disorders in younger children—an issue rarely discussed but extremely relevant to developmental psychology in contemporary society. This is especially true since our culture highly values thinness, an ideal that is rapidly seeping its way into the minds of young children.

First, I commented on a blog post by Amy Graff, a dedicated mother and community leader with a large reader following. Her blog is called the Mommy Files and the post is titled "Are Parents Overly Obsessed With Their Kids' Diets?" Additionally, my second comment can be found on a "Bulimia Anorexia" blog written by William Webster, an Australian researcher in the neurobiological treatments for eating disorders. The post is titled: "Eating Disorders Are the Reverse Side of the Chilhood Obesity Campaign." My responses can be seen below, or directly at the blogs which I commented.

"Are Parents Overly Obsessed With Their Kids' Diets?"

Scouring the blogosphere for recent and informative posts concerning childhood eating disorders, I was pleased to stumble upon your page. I am intrigued by the prospect that parents may contribute to a child’s anxiety and maladaptive outlook towards food. I agree with your position that there is nothing wrong with feeding your child in a healthy and green way. Similarly, I too recognize that the New York Times article may drive a mother to rush out to the nearest grocery store in search of the well-marketed “sugar cereals” meant to satisfy the saccharin needs of children (see image right). Like others, I think the most balanced approach would be simply to allow children to eat what they please in moderation—for we all know too well the notion of “you always want what you can’t have.” However, while it may be true that the story in the New York Times focuses on extreme cases of uber-regulating parents, one should not be too quick to discard the information. Anecdotal evidence surely does not take into account true experimental studies and causation, but this does not mean that accounts such as these do not have major implications for the onset of eating disorders in children.

In exploring your argument, I see that you quote Nina Planck, food author, when she said, “It’s a total cop out to lay blame on schools and parents for children’s eating disorders. The eating disorder comes out of a disordered psyche…” Whether you personally believe this yourself or not, I do not think that Planck’s perspective paints a full picture of the development of disorders in children. Developmental psychologists will always note the vital importance of complex interactions between psychological, social, and genetic factors in determining the outcome of disorders. In an article titled, “Young Girls Start Eating Disorders Early,” researchers point out that “the causes range from genetics and family problems, to lack of self-esteem and the media’s portrayal of thin women as ideal.” So yes, you are right when you say that neither parents nor school are the sole factors to blame when children’s anxieties about food manifest into more serious issues. However, I hope you realize that how you talk about food and think about food yourself, will probably affect your children, as you are their primary influence. Children are very susceptible to imitating the role models around them. Similarly, it is important not to believe that one can place all blame on a “disordered psyche,” because in doing this, one limits the ability to take hold of the situation by deeming it out of the realm of control.

"Eating Disorders Are the Reverse Side of the Childhood Obesity Campaign"

I admire your unique and innovative perspective as to how children come to experience full-blown eating disorders later in life. In fact, in researching childhood eating disorders and risks, I continue to find the repetitively obvious and common discourse associated with the subject: that eating problems arise from family problems and the media, among various other sociocultural, biological, and behavioral perspectives. While these standpoints are legitimate and have been studied for years, it is refreshing to see a new take on the issue at hand.

Firstly, I think you raise a very important point in shedding light on the fact that programs designed to promote health and to combat obesity may sometimes backfire. New Guidelines for Childhood Obesity Prevention Programs on the Academy for Eating Disorders have been recently posted and discuss that a mere “emphasis on appearance and weight control can promote eating disordered behaviors.” By stressing weight and appearance, children begin to think more about such issues and in consequence, may start diet clubs and embark on unhealthy journeys towards shedding pounds (see image left). With the focus centered on being skinny, those children that are overweight tend to stand out even more so than before, in contrast. Additionally, other factors like the media only serve to exacerbate the problem.

Secondly, I agree with your idea that the pessimistic attitudes that overweight children acquire throughout their childhood can lead to full blown eating disorders later on. This is especially true since these negative schemas are formed when the child’s brain is most “plastic.” The idea is that while children’s development systems are still malleable to change, they will acquire negative views towards food and the self, which will then become molded into their brains as they become adults. You note that there have been major breakthroughs in the treatment of eating disorders via “neuroplasticity”, “using the fact that our brains remain plastic even into adulthood.” This idea appears to be a pioneering approach to the treatment of eating disorders, and I am very interested to see its development. You are honest in candidly noting that treatment is difficult and not meant for everyone. However, your argument would be more convincing if you implemented sufficient data and/or empirical research in your discussion of neuroplasticity. Your readers would gain a lot by knowing the facts, how many people this type of treatment has worked for, and the scientific and psychological implications. It would only benefit you to include more evidence. Nevertheless, I applaud your intuitive and modern approach to a historically old problem.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Divorce as it Impacts Children: What and What Not to Believe

I am, similar to approximately every  one out of two kids, a product of divorce (see image right). Divorce is a constant and perpetual machine that tears through people’s lives. It is a present and ongoing issue that is sure to persist well into the future assuming that people continue to marry. And yet, because divorce shatters every notion of the American Dream, we do not take much interest in pondering it lest it directly affect our families and us. It is not important until we become its victim. Additionally, divorce is something so prevalent and “normal” in our culture that we cease to deem it significant and rather see it as an unfortunate inevitability of life for some. Because the turmoil resulting from divorce often affects the children involved, there is a clear developmental-psychological component to divorce. Most of the research that has been done concerning children of divorced parents depicts the child as extremely fragile and vulnerable. A kid is thought to be indelibly scarred by the prospect of his or her parent’s divorce—the damage said to be irreparable. Having been through it myself, I cannot help but be skeptical towards the available literature. While I recognize that a smooth and friendly separation like that of my parents is a rarity, I fervently believe that the existing information concerning children of divorce is flawed. Not all children react to their parent’s divorce the same way: age, emotional stability, and the circumstances and reasons for the divorce all need to be taken into account. It is wrong to lump all children into one uniform category.

Last Saturday, an article posted on the MormonTimes titled, “The greatest gift you can give your children,” argued that what children want and need the most is a mother and father who love each other. The article discusses the negative effects of divorce, stating that ill fortune invariably spills into all areas of their life as a result. Among a laundry-list of negative consequences are that “divorce sows lasting inner conflict in children’s lives even when their parents did not fight”, “children of divorce are forced to grow up too fast”, “children often lose contact with their fathers”, “children must learn to worry about child abuse, sexual abuse and kidnapping by the non-custodial parent”, “children will worry about their stuff, because it is often lost in the constant traveling”, and “children become a keeper of secrets.” While some of these outcomes may possibly be accurate for certain individuals, it is hard to believe that these dire consequences would be true for all or even most kids. The statements are nonsensical and overly exaggerated, failing to take into account the individual differences that exist among humans. Rather than research and accrue sound data and accurate statements on the subject, the author seems to be using false overstatements in order to promote the idea of marriage as being the sole way to protect children.

Surprised at finding such a recent and yet uninformed article, I continued to search the web to see what other information is available to those interested in the impact of parental divorce. I was astonished with what I found: myriad articles discussing the same inflated and exaggerated results. “An Exploration of the Ramifications of Divorce on Children and Adolescents,” boldly states, “divorce is an intensely stressful experience for all children, regardless of age or developmental level” (see image right). It is hard to imagine that even a young infant would be able to comprehend the complex nature of relationships, let alone divorce. From my own experience, I do not recall any feelings of stress or vulnerability when my parents separated. I was two years old. It depends largely on how the parents decide to involve or even better, not to involve their children in the tangled environment of their divorce. Not all children will harness the same reaction. Similarly, not everyone will endure the “long term consequences on psychosocial functioning,” nor a “life altering impact on the well being and subsequent development.” Most of all, it is not necessarily true that “the consequences of divorce impact all aspects of a child’s life, including the parent child relationship, emotions and behavior, psychological development, and coping skills.” From simply looking around, it is evident that on average, children are able to develop normally despite the fact that every one out of two kids have experienced divorce in their lives. If facts like the ones quoted were true, we would see many more maladjusted kids and people in society. Granted this particular website lists information that is a few years old, it is still readily available to all who seek information regarding the subject, and is not very different from the data just recently posted within the past week.

In another article dated from February 22nd, 2009, the author poses the question as to whether the state should be able to restrict divorce, being that it has such negative effects on children. As in the column written for the Mormon Times, this too appears to be propaganda for promoting and sanctifying traditional marriage rather than to actually provide information on children dealing with divorce. It contends that divorce laws are too relaxed and need to become more strident in order to preserve marriage since children are “devastated” by divorcing parents. Moreover, in yet another new opinion piece from the Seattle Times (February 25th, 2009), it is said that “children of divorce are our most fragile social statistic: over 70 percent of high-school dropouts and pregnant teens girls come from fatherless homes as well as the 80-85 percent of male teens in juvenile justice centers.” Nowhere in the piece is there proof or studies cited of where the statistics are obtained. It seems there is a lot left to learn on the topic of parental divorce and the psychological effects on children. There is similarly a lot left to learn on how to provide information with credible evidence.

Fortunately, upon further investigation, a small number of resources arose finally boasting reliable information. Most notable was a study called “Life-Span Adjustment of Children to Their Parents’ Divorce.” In it, the author carefully seeks to extricate and identify all aspects that interact in a divorce and the resulting impacts on children. While he does illustrate that children of divorce do indeed encounter more issues in their daily lives, he emphasizes that the overall group differences between children of divorce and other children are small, “with considerable diversity existing in children’s reactions to divorce.” As a true researcher, this author presents all the nitty-gritty details and stresses that there are several factors that determine a child’s outcome after a divorce. The important ones include the amount and quality of contact with noncustodial parents, the custodial parents’ psychological adjustment and parenting skills, the level of interparental conflict that precedes and follows divorce, the degree of economic hardship to which children are exposed, and the number of stressful life events that accompany and follow divorce. All these aspects are what culminate and interact to determine a child’s outcome. If there is anything that I learned from statistics class, it is that we should never believe the first bit of information that we find and the data that is listed. When searching for answers to imperative and life-related questions, like the psychological impact that divorce may have on children, make sure that the information is backed with dependable data. Analyze who is presenting it, where it is coming from, and what the potential motives may be. A credible online journal does not necessarily always yield purely accurate results.

Perhaps now we can rest assured that we may not necessarily be forever scarred and doomed by the prospect of divorce—like many life experiences, the end product depends largely on a multitude of factors.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Autism: Tragedies and Treatments

As the eve of the Oscars quickly arrived and simultaneously passed in a puff of star-filled smoke, we are merely left with images. The images of impeccably dressed men and women exuding sheer class and pulchritude will be soon forgotten. The talk will subside as people care less and less about which actress wore which gown and the like. These are frivolous topics that we should forget. Unfortunately, as time takes its course, people tend to also forget and cease to speak about more important issues and tragedies circulating in the media. One such story that has slipped through the cracks of the news is the story of the tragic death of Jett Travolta, son of John Travolta (see image right). The travesty was at the epicenter of hot controversy and debate in the realm of autism, as critics believe his death may have been preventable and possibly attributed to the religion notoriously known as Scientology. As a result, this week I resolved to indulge my opinion by commenting on a post titled “May He Rest in Peace.” This post can be found at "The Joy of Autism" and is written by a celebrated blogger in the field of autism, Estée Klar, who assumes an impressive following of a quarter of a million readers. As this post further triggered my curiosity with reference to treatment methods for children with autism, I also consider a second post, titled “New Medication Ineffective for Autistic Symptoms.” Lisa Jo Rudy, a professional writer, researcher, and consultant in the field of autism, posted this in her “Autism Blog.” Both posts effectively provoke questions and concerns relevant to developmental psychology and shed light on its relationship to the complex disorder known as autism. My responses can be seen either below, or directly at the blogs at which I commented on.

"May He Rest In Peace"

In reading this post, I am truly enlightened by the ideas that you provoke in your readers. Like you, I agree that it is “dangerous to humanity” the way in which people identify autistics—normally to batter and criticize, and rarely to ruminate the endearing and astounding qualities they bring forth. It is human nature to conform to what is considered “normal” and yet the term normal is in itself obscure. Who has the right to decide what is normal? We once punished and humiliated those who wrote with their left hand, deeming it a sure sign of the devil. However, in contemporary times, whether you’re a “lefty” or a “righty” does not matter. It is unsettling to think that society could be so ignorant, but in many ways, we still are. We create our own perceptions of what is normal or “right”. I agree that there is nothing wrong with the flapping and flailing behavior commonly associated with autism. The fact that humans can flap and flail should mean that it should not be looked upon as weird or unusual. I also believe that as humans we have to learn to accept and we must criticize less. I applaud your focus on eliminating stigmatic labels.

I do wonder though, whether you truly consider autism activists in the wrong for questioning the nature of Jett Travolta’s untimely death. While I concur that doctors and psychiatrists are quick to diagnose and medicate children, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all treatments or medications are harmful. Says the New York Post: “According to the Church of Scientology, people with disabilities like autism are classified as "degraded" and capable of curing themselves by working harder on the church's teachings.” I’m not blessed to know anybody specifically with autism, and so I turn to you and wonder if you think it is possible for an autistic child to be “cured” through religious teachings. The article in the New York Post also mentions that the Travoltas continually “denied speculation that their son exhibited autistic symptoms” and a result failed to seek treatment or evaluation for their son, instead attributing his symptoms to Kawasaki syndrome. The Los Angeles Times however reports, “there is no link between Kawasaki and seizures. However it is reportedly common for sufferers of autism to have seizures if they are left untreated.” This brings me to my last concern. If Jett was indeed autistic, the Travoltas could have taken initiative to use their fame and notoriety to catalyze support and awareness for the cause. Perhaps choosing not to “label” their son as being autistic was not to their advantage. I simply wonder whether there is a fine line between not desiring to label and stigmatize, and causing potential harm to the person you so love and cherish. Could this have been avoided?

"New Medication Ineffective for Autistic Symptoms"

Upon reading this brief and yet informative post concerning the nature of drug treatments available to those with Autism, I am very intrigued with one particular idea that you present. I too share your fascination with the ability of placebo subjects to exhibit improved behavioral symptoms. It is especially interesting given the nature of autism and the notion that, as you describe, “it’s unlikely that children with autism would fully understand the intent of the treatment.” Given the limited number of FDA- approved medications available in treating autism (see image left), it would be detrimental to both the fields of science and autism to conduct studies analyzing the placebo effect as it pertains to the amelioration of autistic symptoms. From a social-psychological perspective there exists a theory known as the self-fulfilling prophecy wherein, “an originally false social belief leads to its fulfillment… When a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs, perceivers’ initially erroneous social beliefs cause targets to act in ways that objectively confirm those beliefs.” In lieu of this, I agree with you that the ability for autistic kids to improve their behavior can be directly attributed to how parents’ expectations may alter their perceptions of their child. I wonder then, if perhaps this can be considered a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if so, if that may be a potential treatment for autism. Is it possible that if a “parents’ expectations can color their vision of their children”, that in consequence the child could actually improve? Meaning, rather than the parents being the core of the placebo effect (as they are the ones that report their child’s improved behavior), is it possible that the child could actually improve as a result of the way their parent’s interact with them?

On February 18th, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a bill requiring insurance to cover the treatment of children with autism won the Senate’s tentative approval. The article states, “families are paying for insurance policies that refuse to cover autism treatment.” Although the bill finally won the Senate’s hesitant approval—that it took this long is very telling of how difficult it is to obtain and undergo treatment for autism, especially for those without the funds to do it. Furthermore, there are various approaches towards treatment, and says the, parents are “Trying Anything and Everything for Autism.” It is evident that there remains some time before a clear answer is provided, but still the question lingers concerning the placebo effect and its implication towards the effective treatment of autism.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Octomom versus Doctor: Are Either to Blame for the Family of Fourteen?

Imagine the shock that Nadya Suleman, age 33, must have felt upon hearing her obstetrician exclaim—“There’s an H!” It was at that precise and unequivocal moment on January 26th 2009, that the mother realized she had just given birth to not one, not two, not five, but an astounding eight babies (see image right). The woman with the seemingly interminable ability to have children would bring home her litter of eight (A through H) to join her other six offspring, all of whom fall under the tender age of eight years old. While on the surface this story harbors all of the endearing qualities of a heartwarming tale—even a miracle some argue, it is a far cry from that. The octuplets have been repeatedly featured in the headlines in the past week, as their birth has sparked much controversy nationwide. The focus is concentrated heavily on the mother, Ms. Suleman, who conceived these children via in vitro fertilization (IVF) all the while single and unemployed. Also under the microscope is Suleman’s fertility doctor, Dr. Michael Kamrava, who enabled the mother to continue to undergo IVF treatments even though he was well aware of her financial status and burgeoning family. Although it is clear that Nadya Suleman has made poor decisions which have compromised the well being of those around her, the fertility doctor is just as culpable for his part in exacerbating the already ominous situation. While Suleman acted wholly irresponsible, Dr. Kamrava operated out of his own interest and greed, using her fecundity to boost the overall fertility rate of his clinic.

In vitro fertilization is a procedure “designed to enhance the likelihood of conception in couples for whom other fertility therapies have been unsuccessful,” states the Overview for IVF Patients. The industry has doubled in size since implemented in 1996, and more than 50,000 children a year are born as a result—a booming 1 billion dollar business. An explanation of the IVF procedure in summary includes the retrieval of the woman’s egg, the collection and preparation of the sperm, the insemination of the eggs and embryo culture, and finally, the transferring of the embryos into the uterus. IVF is a complex process, wherein each stage of the procedure is associated with specific risks. It is important to note that the Overview specifically designates IVF as a procedure designed for couples who cannot have children, not for single mothers already caring for six children. Fertility clinics are not simply places to create a personalized soccer team, and in undergoing the procedure, the mother puts herself and her children at risk each time she assumes treatment. Yet from this, a significant question is raised—is the nation merely judging Suleman because she chooses to raise her children single-handedly and without the help of a man? How is it politically correct or fair that in vitro fertilization is outlined as being specifically couple-oriented? The procedure discriminates against women as it intimates that a woman cannot raise a family on her own ability. And those on Nadya's side agree with her statement: "I feel as though I've been under the microscope because I chose this unconventional life." For instance, Jennifer Block of the Guardian UK believes, "Couples who've had multiples haven't suffered the same scrutiny because they are couples. The media went easy on the McCaughey family, who had septuplets in 1997, and barely acknowledged the Chukwus, who had octuplets in 1999. And then there are the Duggars who have 18 children and their own reality TV show." Furthermore, another Octomom supporter blogs, "We have something called reproductive freedom in this country. If you tell a woman that she can’t have 14 children, regardless of her circumstances, then you leave the door open for telling all women when and how they can give birth in general. You can forget about making your own decisions about abortions, birth control and, yes, fertility treatments."

It appears then the single mom does have some advocates to root her on and have faith in her ability to provide. Unfortunately though, Nadya Suleman is by no means Angelina Jolie, her hypothesized role model. Suleman does not have millions of dollars, a property the size of a small country, a wealthy husband, nor an army of body guards and baby nurses to help care for her brood. The single mother lives modestly in a small house that barely even fit the first of her six progeny and receives federal assistance for three who are disabled with autism. Ms. Suleman already owes a whopping $50,000 in student loans and was in the same situation when deciding to undergo IVF yet again a year ago (using the last of a life's savings), placing the yearning for a child-filled utopia before her existing children’s necessities. Never thinking logically of how to care for the babies financially or emotionally, Suleman placed her faith in a far-fetched dream: “I will feed them. I will do the best I can. In my own way, I do believe wholeheartedly that God will provide." With no money, and holding firmly to a childhood fantasy of a house filled with cherubic faces, she is sadly twelve arms short of reality. In opposition to Suleman and to the blogger's statement above, pro-choice psychiatrist Carole Lieberman argues, "Freedom, including women’s reproductive freedom, entails responsibility. Nadya is the poster child for women’s reproductive irresponsibility. Prochoice essentially means that she had the choice over her body in regard to reproduction. She had several options, including donating her frozen eggs or giving the babies up for adoption.” In essence, Nadya Suleman has been designated one of the most selfish mothers to date by many.

Although it is clearly ludicrous and irresponsible for a single woman living off welfare to continue requesting the IVF treatments, it is ultimately the doctor who should have regulated and firmly put his foot down. Like many mothers who have acquired the biologically evolved need to protect and care for all their children, Suleman simply did not want to leave the unused embryos in the fertility clinic. She thought they deserved the chance to live and thus decided to implant what was left. Upon realizing how many survived, she was astounded like the rest of the world. When this phenomenon occurs, doctors normally perform a “selective reduction,” wherein by injecting a couple of the fetuses one can increase the chances of more healthy babies instead of a miscarriage. So, why did Dr. Kamrava not undergo the routine procedure? Apparently he is not one to follow rules. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the guidelines for in vitro fertilization in women under 35 encourage the transfer of only one embryo, with two being the maximum (see image left). Dr. Michael Kamrava implanted six embryos into Nadya Suleman, two of which resulted in twins. The real difficulty is that concrete, enforceable laws do not back these guidelines and regulations. Says the NewYorkTimes, “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a surveillance system that collects data on fertility clinics, but reporting is voluntary and there are no government sanctions for not reporting. As a result, experts say many doctors are still implanting too many embryos to increase the chance of pregnancy." Apparently they are doing this in order to boost their clinic's fertility rates, but doctors, such as Dr. Potter of the Huntington Reproductive Center, are supposed to make the final decision regardless of a patient’s wishes: “We have an obligation to protect the patient and not let the patient do things that are unreasonable." And yet, Dr. Kamrava did not abide by this descriptive norm, instead taking advantage of Suleman and her robust fertility. In documents recovered by the Los Angeles Times, it was found that the doctor's clinic actually has one of the worst success rates for pregnancy in the entire country, with Ms. Suleman's children representing a "sizable portion" of his clinic's fertility increases in the last several years. It is no wonder he turned a blind eye against what was surely going to be disastrous and irresponsible. And where he should have selectively reduced Suleman's embryos, he failed to, probably relishing in his success of producing octuplets. Meanwhile, Nadya and all of her babies could have easily died from the high-risk pregnancy. Speaking of Kamrava's participation in the fiasco, embyrologist John Scodras notes, "That's a dangerous thing to do." And indeed it was, on both the mother and the doctor's parts. Both acted selfishly and without thinking of the consequences. Nadya Suleman failed to take into consideration the effect that an additional eight children could have on an already large family. She did not care that she could potentially be bringing disabled children into the world, simply desiring to be surrounded by children, even ones she could not afford or pay individual attention to. Dr. Michael Kamrava similarly thought of only himself and his personal needs and potential gains when playing the role of the scientist-God. He broke rules and took risks that could have cost him the life of a patient and numerous children. Neither parties feel that they are in the wrong and yet the whole country is outraged at both their carefree and egoist attitudes. It is unfortunate that fourteen beautiful children are going to have to live with these unfortunate and avoidable mistakes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A New Blog About Developmental Psychology: Gaining Entry Into the Psychology Blogosphere

Greetings to the developmental psychology world— and to those people who have merely stumbled upon this newly born blog, I hope that they will be interested as well. As a brand new member of the blogosphere, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Farrah Aldjufrie and I am a psychology major attending the University of Southern California. In creating this blog, I aim to explore current and important issues in developmental psychology. To preserve the goal of remaining up to date in the psychology world, I have embarked on a journey to discover the most relevant and dynamic resources on the Web, and have conveniently placed them in the linkroll (to the right). To find these resources I left no leaf unturned— starting from larger and broader search engines such as Google and Cuil, and then funneling down to explore narrower websites— organizations and associations dedicated precisely to developmental psychology. In between I scoured through directories, library indexes, governmental and health-affiliated websites, and vital news sources— all which led me to various astounding developmental psych web resources (like the Child Development Institute). Rather than just focus on websites, I similarly chose a few developmental psychology blogs as sources of information (such as The Human Odyssey).

In carefully and meticulously choosing the websites for the linkroll, I selected only those sites of utmost quality. I did this by employing the Webby Awards criteria—a standard of judging and selecting high-value websites. I chose those sites that displayed a wealth of knowledge and those that were visually pleasing to the eye and all the while, navigable. The sites on the linkroll meet these criteria and also entail sufficient interactivity and high authority: they are affluent organizations (, associations (American Psychological Association), and research centers, and therefore what is written on them can be trusted. These websites demonstrate a pleasing and informative overall experience.

As per craftily selecting the developmental psychology blogs, I followed what is known as the IMSA criteria, which allows one to carefully evaluate and assess different blogs. Anyone who is anyone can have their own blog so it is important to make sure that a blog is written by someone who cites their information. It is also important to look at who comments on their blog, who follows their blog, and if their blog is of influence. It is essential to look at the blog’s content, but also, at how the blog is written and how often the blog is updated. The best blogs are ones that are ‘alive’ and interactive, with valuable viewpoints that are forward and open about its biases. Blogs that are visually pleasing are important as well (note the strong aesthetics of the blogs in the image to the right).

I hope my readers will find this to be a strong and relevant blog in the contemporary research and academic world of developmental psychology.
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