Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.

Rise in church-to-residence conversions in Chicago?

The Chicago Tribune suggests there is a trend toward more residences created out of church buildings:

The popular trend of church-to-condo conversions began in the 1980s, said Carrie Georgitsis, the Redfin real estate agent who worked with Buera and Babus on their house hunt. Over time, the appeal became more popular, especially in the Lakeview and Lincoln Park neighborhoods…

Church-to-home conversions mirror the ever-changing needs of the community. Very often, a congregation will sell its church building because the congregation dwindled, forcing remaining members to consolidate into a smaller space since they can no longer maintain the large structure, Georgitsis said.Chicago’s increase in church conversions over the years reflects the religious direction of the United States in general. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, the percentage of adults who described themselves as Christians dropped nearly 8 points from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent in just seven years. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who identified as religiously unaffiliated (describing themselves as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular”) jumped more than 6 points from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.

“Studies show that the long-term church attendance in America is on the decline,” said Bill Skubik, president of Religious Real Estate, a Waterford, Mich.-based real estate agency that specializes in religious properties. “I tell pastors all the time, ‘You may be able to afford to buy the building, but who is going to pay the utility bills? You’ve got maintenance and utilities that are expensive.'” The decline of churchgoers reflects the changing needs of communities, Skubik said. And, as a result, church buildings are left abandoned or sold.

In Chicago, churches in residential areas can be converted into homes without any zoning ramifications. “Generally, many older churches were zoned for residential use, so it’s a relatively seamless process,” said Peter Strazzabosco, a deputy commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. Developers only need to worry about zoning codes in terms of the number of units and parking lots they plan to build, he said.

I find two things interesting about this story. First, this is presented as a story of supply and demand. In neighborhoods with tighter housing markets, developers and buyers are willing to pursue residences made out of former churches. Yet, the opening story in the article presents a couple who like the unique features of the unit. What if church buildings become desirable now just because there are not enough units available but because of their aesthetic charm and/or sacred architecture?

Second, the journalist suggests there is a trend toward more church conversions. But, are there any numbers to back this up? Do we know how many times this has been done? In the past, would developers bulldoze the unused church buildings rather than convert them?

Perhaps we will know if this is really a trend when new condos and single-family residences deliberately incorporate church-like features into their architecture and design.

Selecting “The Most Overexposed Chicago Design Trends”

Curbed Chicago identified six Chicago-specific design trends that they think are now passé.

Stylized Chicago neighborhood maps [I have a t-shirt version but not a poster]

Reclaimed wood Chicago flags [Odd – no]

Stolen ‘L’ maps [A version of the stolen street sign…don’t have one]

Chicago World’s Fair prints [No – but have one of the better South Shore Line posters]

Generic Chicago skyline poster [Sort of – a real matted photograph but a similar image]

The nothing-but-a-black-leather-sofa-and-flat-screen-TV look [No]

I want to know whether these are real patterns or not: how many Chicago area residents have these features? How does this compare to residents of other cities? Someone could create a bot to scan real estate listing photos or the list could have emerged from a set of in-the-know interior designers. Alas, we have no idea what methodology Curbed Chicago employed which perhaps indicates that it wasn’t very rigorous.

All of this hints that decor trends are driven more by “feel” than hard data. What’s “in” these days could be tracked in a variety of ways yet it often seems that a class of gatekeepers – professionals, the media, corporations – gets to dictate when these trends begin and end. For example, are we past the era of stainless steel appliances and granite countertops? The average resident or seller is looking to others to signal the latest trend.

Record 5 homes over $100 million sold in the world last year. Is this really a trend?

The luxury housing market is booming and a new record was set last year for sales of $100 million+ homes:

Demand for mega-mansions and penthouses has accelerated as wealthy buyers seek havens for their cash and search for alternative investments such as art and collectible real estate, according to a report Thursday by Christie’s International Real Estate, owned by auction house Christie’s. Five homes sold for more than $100 million last year, with at least 20 more on the market with nine-figure asking prices, the brokerage said…

Just one home sale exceeded the $100 million mark in 2013, following four such transactions in 2012 and three in 2011, Christie’s reported.

While I have seen other corroborating evidence that this segment of the market is indeed doing well, how much of a trend or record is this went the number of transactions throughout the world increased to five? Here is the trend from the last four years: 3, 4, 1, 5. So if 2014 was a record year, was 2013 a big plunge in the market? The number of cases is so small and the timeline is so short that it is difficult to draw any substantial conclusions. Yet, suggesting a record occurred makes for a better headline or story…

The “something of a fad” of walking every block of a city

Want to walk every street in your community? The New York Times suggests you may be part of a fad:

Even in the era of Google Street View, walking each mile of a city has become something of a fad. A woman finished walking every street in Berkeley in 2007. A man in his mid-90s walked over 300 miles of Sydney, Australia, before he died in 2008. It took three years for a Minneapolis woman, Francine Corcoran, to walk the 1,071 miles that make up the city. London has been walked, as has San Francisco.

And while the other walkers did not set off explicitly to round up wackiness the way Mr. Dalzell did, at a walker’s pace, they no doubt saw plenty of it anyway.

“When you walk a city block by block, you are forced to slow down and look at everything — you see more, you feel more, you get into the rhythm of the neighborhoods,” said William B. Helmreich, a professor of sociology at City College of New York who wrote “The New York Nobody Knows,” a book about walking every street — some 6,000 miles — of the city’s five boroughs.

“In urban areas, you often don’t feel like an individual, which makes you want to put your stamp of uniqueness on something,” Professor Helmreich said, “even if it is just the paint on your house.”

I agree that this approach would get you closer to day-to-day life in a large city. However, I wonder at the use of the phrase “something of a fad.” A fad implies something that is quite popular but dies out quickly. In other words, it is a trend. But, the article goes on to cite at least six people who have done this over a seven year stretch. Is this enough to be a pattern or trend? The only way I see this working is due to the unusual nature of this activity: it requires a lot of dedication and time. Because of this, even getting a few people to do this and record their activities (are there secret whole-city walkers out there?) might be enough to qualify as a fad. But, it is hard to imagine this truly becoming a fad, either in being something people want to do or actually do.

McMansions are not necessarily in gated communities

One writer suggests both McMansions and gated communities are alive and well in the United States:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the real estate market saw an explosion of “McMansions” and sprawling estates across the nation. The economic downturn toward the end of the decade brought the country back to earth and shifted the trend in new housing from giant luxury homes back to moderately sized residences.

While many have claimed that the McMansion boom is over, others beg to differ…

While the tiny house trend has been intriguing to observe, it’s not terribly indicative of where the country is headed in general. For every house that’s being built on wheels, at least one other is moving into a luxurious gated community.

To be honest, experts who voiced a death sentence on McMansions, estates, and gated communities probably spoke too soon.

This piece seems to suggest that homes in luxurious gated communities are necessarily McMansions. However, I’ve never seen evidence that would suggest this is the case. There is little doubt that these two trends were occurring around the same time with gated communities picking up steam in the 1970s and 1980s and the term McMansions arriving by the late 1990s even if the homes started growing in number in the 1980s. But, not all gated communities necessarily include large houses. From what I can recall from the 1997 book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, gated communities can often include middle-class or more average homes as can even be in urban neighborhoods with smaller homes. Gates may project the image of exclusivity but this can be relative or as Blakely and Snyder point out in the book, the gates are often just ornamental rather than serving as real barriers.

At the same time, it would be interesting to look at some data on this. Yet, it is relatively hard from survey data to define a McMansion beyond basic features like square footage and number of rooms.

Porches on new American homes increase by 21% between 1993 and 2013

More new American homes have porches:

As the Census Bureau reported in June, 63 percent of new single-family homes completed last year had this once-again-trendy feature, up from 42 percent in 1993. So what’s the cause of this major upswing? Well, as Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, revealed to the Wall Street Journal, the return of the porch is reflective of a desire for social connection. And as “a place between the privacy of the house and the public world of the street,” it’s perfect for just that.

See the official Census data here – the porch is up as well as the patio while decks have decreased.

But, the real question is whether this increase in porches is related to an increased use of porches. The quote above from Stern is paraphrased as “reflective of a desire for social connection” but not necessarily an actual uptick in that. This gets at an issue at the heart of some critiques of New Urbanism and other attempts at neo-traditional architecture: does building a porch change social behavior? Indeed, what if having a porch of the front of the house is more related to what is perceived as features that increase a home’s value?

All together, these new porches may be much more aspirational and about financial return than utilized for socializing.  We’ve all heard the story that people in the not-too-distant past used to sit on the porch all the time but, unfortunately, I’m not aware of any data sources that consistently measure this in the American population at large…

Questioning the open kitchen

Lots of newer homes have kitchens open to great rooms or other gathering spaces. However, there are a few people questioning the trend:

J. Bryan Lowder, an assistant editor at Slate, recently slammed the open concept in a widely read article called “Close Your Open-Concept Kitchen.” He called the trend a “baneful scourge” that has spread through American homes like “black mold through a flooded basement.”

Lowder’s point, and one echoed through the anti-open-kitchen movement, is that we have walls and doors for a reason. While open-kitchen lovers champion the ease of multitasking cooking and entertainment and appreciate how the cook can keep an eye on the kids (or an eye on a favorite TV show), the haters reply that open kitchens do neither effectively. Instead, the detractors say, open kitchens leave guests with an eyeful of kitchen mess, distract cooks, and leave Mom and Dad with no place to hide from their noisy brood.

And apparently defenders of the open kitchen are quite vocal:

Roxanne, who blogs at Just Me With … under her first name only (and chose not to reveal her last name in this article for fear of backlash from open-kitchen devotees), ranted against the concept on her blog. For Roxanne, the open kitchen destroys coveted privacy.

Who knew this topic was so controversial. And how did we move from older homes with kitchens at the back of the house to the open kitchen of today?

Design psychologist Toby Israel, author of “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” said open kitchens have gained such momentum because the kitchen is often the heart of family existence and a central gathering point.

All interesting. But, another issue with this article: the headline suggests there is a backlash against this design but presents limited evidence of this. Sure, it quotes a few people who don’t like the open kitchen. And there is a citation of an odd statistic that just over 75% of home remodelers are knocking down walls. All of this indicates more of a discussion about open kitchens, rather than a big trend.

This is a common tactic today from journalists and others online: suggest there may be a trend, present limited evidence, and then leave it to readers to sort out at the end whether a big trend really exists. There are several ways around this. First, present more data. A few articles that start heated online discussions do not tell us much. In this case, tell us what builders are actually doing or what homes people are buying. Second, wait it out a bit. Having more time tends to reveal whether there is really a trend or just a minor blip. While this doesn’t help meet regular deadlines, it does mean that we can be more certain that there is a discernible pattern.

Reminder to journalists: a blog post garnering 110 comments doesn’t say much about social trends

In reading a book this weekend (a review to come later this week), I ran across a common tactic used by journalists: looking at the popularity of websites as evidence of a growing social trend. This particular book quoted a blog post and then said “The post got 110 comments.”

The problem is that this figure doesn’t really tell us much about anything.

1. These days, 110 comments on an Internet story is nothing. Controversial articles on major news websites regularly garner hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.

2. We don’t know who exactly was commenting on the story. Were these people who already agreed with what the author was writing? Was it friends and family?

In the end, citing these comments runs into the same problems that face web surveys done poorly: we don’t know whether they are representative of Americans as a whole or not. That doesn’t mean blogs and comments can’t be cited at all but we need to be very careful of what these sites tell us, what we can know from the comments, and who exactly they represent. A random sample of blog posts might help as would a more long-term study of responses to news articles and blog posts. But, simply saying that something is an important issue because a bunch of people were moved enough to comment online may not mean much of anything.

Thankfully, the author didn’t use this number of blog comments as their only source of evidence; it was part of a larger story with more conclusive data. However, it might simply be better to quote a blog post like this as an example of what is out on the Internet rather than try to follow it with some “hard” numbers.

Another megatrend for 2030: the rise of megacities

While the declining power of the United States seems to be getting the most attention in a new report from the National Intelligence Council, the report also predicts change involving cities:

Although the Council does allow for the possibility of a “decisive re-assertion of U.S. power,” the futurists seem pretty well convinced that America is, relatively speaking, on the decline and that China is on the ascent. In fact, the Council believes nation-states in general are losing their oomph, in favor of “megacities [that will] flourish and take the lead in confronting global challenges.” And we’re not necessarily talking New York or Beijing here; some of these megacities could be somehow “built from scratch.”

One of these ideas is new and the other is not. The idea that megacities will become more powerful is not a new idea as metropolitan regions have been recognized for their economic, political, and cultural power. (See the 2012 Global Cities Index.) Concurrent with the rise of megacities, particularly in developing nations, are concerns some have with the ability of nation-states to cope with new global issues. If you go further back, you find discussions of “megapolis” and how these combinations of large cities would come to dominate national and global life.

The other idea is newer: large cities “built from scratch.” The rate of urbanization in some countries over the last few decades has been fantastic. For example, Chinese cities have grown tremendously. In the Middle East, several cities have arisen out of deserts. Third World megacities like Lagos or Sao Paulo keep growing. While quick construction is more possible today (extra tall buildings constructed in 90 days!), I wonder how possible it is to move millions of people around to new cities and have some semblance of social order.