Correlation is Not Causation: STI Edition

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about a new study on STI rates among men who hook up with men using smartphone apps, and how easy it is to misinterpret the results.

new study by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and UCLA suggests that men who have sex with men and use hookup apps like Grindr are significantly more likely to have gonorrhea and chlamydia than men who have sex with men but do not use such apps. But before you panic and delete Grindr from your phone lest it give you an STI, let’s look at what the study does and does not actually show.

[...]Careless headline writers frequently mix up correlation and causation, spreading misinformation and stigma. Despite Lowder’s balanced take on the study, the headline of his own piece reads, rather alarmingly, “Study Suggests Grindr-Like Apps Increase Likelihood of Sexually Transmitted Infections.” This wording implies that using such apps increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting an STI, not that, in general, people who use such apps are also more likely to have an STI. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Another important distinction is whether the participants contracted the STIs during the course of the study (while using GSN apps) or just happened to have them at the time that the data was collected. Here Lowder’s article is also unclear: “Specifically, geo-social app users were 25 percent more likely than their bar hopping comrades to contract gonorrhea, and 37 percent more likely to have picked up chlamydia.” And an article about the study at Advocate is headlined, “STUDY: Smartphone Hookup App Users More Likely To Contract Sexually Transmitted Infections.”

However, the actual study notes that the participants were tested for STIs at the same time as they were asked about their sexual behavior, including the use of GSN apps. This means that they did not necessarily contract the STIs while using the GSN apps, or after having used them. The infections could have preceded the participants’ use of the apps.

This is important because it can help untangle the question of why this correlation exists, besides the obvious hypothesis that using GSN apps can actually cause people to contract STIs at higher rates than other ways of meeting sexual partners. Perhaps people who already have STIs are more interested in using the apps because of the anonymity—it’s much less scary to tell a random person you’ll never meet again that you have an STI and need to use a condom than it is to tell someone who’s embedded in your social network. Or, on the more cynical side of things, people might feel less guilty about not disclosing an STI to a random app hookup than someone they’ve met in a more conventional way.

Or, maybe people who are attracted to “wild” and “risky” sexual situations are more likely to have STIs and more likely to use GSN apps. The common factor could be impulsivity or recklessness.

Read the rest here.

College Freshmen Need a Class on Mental Health

This is the second installment of my weekly column for the Daily Northwestern. Check it out in its original here.

As college students, we’re intimately acquainted with stress. Everyone feels it, often on a daily basis. We juggle classes, jobs, extracurriculars and social lives, and the stress we feel means we’re pushing ourselves to succeed. However, for increasing numbers of students, the stress has become unbearable.

Here are some statistics for you.

According to a study of 200,000 students, only about half of college students say they have “above average” mental health, which is unusual since people tend to overestimate how above average they are. (Google “Lake Wobegon Effect” or “illusory superiority” if you’re curious.) In 1985, it was 64 percent.

According to an Associated Press and mtvU survey, one-third of college students say they use drugs or alcohol to relax. One-fifth say they feel stress all or most of the time.

Feelings of stress only increase as we progress through college. According to the mtvU survey, almost 30 percent of freshmen say they’ve felt so stressed that they didn’t know how to pull out of it. By sophomore year, almost 60 percent of students say so.

Ten percent of college students say they’ve considered suicide just in the past year. For Northwestern, that means 900 undergraduates.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Making college easier obviously isn’t an option. But I don’t think it’s okay for things to be the way they are.

I propose that freshmen be required to take a class about mental health and stress management. Perhaps it could count as a distribution credit for ethics and values or social and behavioral sciences. This class should cover the basics of dealing with stress, sleeping well and knowing when to get help. It should be taught by personable faculty members or by Searle or CAPS staff. It should provide time for discussing students’ difficulties as they experience them, sharing each other’s coping strategies and perhaps some meditation lessons. It could be — dare I say it? — fun.

Why should this class be required? Well, for starters, because most students can’t predict whether or not they’re going to experience debilitating levels of stress someday. And because, when given the choice, people like to pretend they’re perfect and don’t need any help with personal problems like stress management. And because Northwestern requires students to learn about math, art and writing, but not about something that could one day save their lives.

A class like this could have benefits that reach far beyond its syllabus. Since class sections would have to be small to facilitate the right environment, students would make friends and get to know a faculty member. Unlike most academic courses, a class like this would jumpstart discussions about deep, personal topics and forge closer friendships than any other class could. Forming connections with professors is one of the best ways to ensure a good college experience, and it’s often hard for freshmen since they have to take large classes. Sharing rather personal things with each other brings people together, and students would come to realize that, despite what it may look like, they’re not the only ones who feel overwhelmed sometimes.

As we love to remind each other and ourselves, we’re all adults here. Our culture doesn’t emphasize mental health; it emphasizes productivity and perfection, so stress management isn’t something we learn unless we make the effort. As we start college, we’re at one of the most vulnerable points of our lives — freshmen have to adjust to an increased workload, a new physical environment, different social norms, greater financial stress and homesickness. We’re used to thinking of stress as something unavoidable, a necessary evil that we have to live with to do well in college. A class like this may not cure us of stress entirely, but it could make our years at NU happier, healthier and more productive.