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The BareAll backlash begins

August 17th, 2006

Dr Petra

Earlier in the week I reported the limitations with the BareAll06 survey – presented in the press as the biggest ever survey of teen behaviour. My concerns with the study were its poor design and application and how it was misreported by those presenting the survey and more widely in the press.

Whilst most of the media didn’t criticise the study at all, some like Cory Silverberg did challenge the ethics and reliability of the research.

Unfortunately the study invited critics of a different kind – those who wanted to use it to promote an anti-sex agenda. Cue the Daily Mail with a very concerning interpretation of the BareAll Survey.

Whilst the Mail feature did question the validity of the research they mistakenly assume an online survey is automatically flawed. Whilst they correctly question whether you can tell the identity of a respondent on an online survey, they didn’t understand that you could regulate for this in the way you administer, design and analyse your study. And that actually the problem with the BareAll survey was less about under 16s responding, and more about the large number of respondents aged over 24 who answered who skewed the outcomes (which the Mail didn’t pick up on).

They also got completely the wrong idea about the research claiming it as a Department of Health sponsored study. It wasn’t. It was an exercise by two media outlets (a radio station and TV channel) and a sex toy manufacturer. The Department of Health supported the outcomes, but didn’t design or fund the research. If the Mail had wanted to be critical the could have had a point about why the Department of Health allowed itself to back a crummy study, and why they didn’t speak out against what was really a campaign as a guise for encouraging viewing/listening figures – a commercial exercise. Instead the reader was left assuming the Department of Health wasted funds on a pointless survey – which wasn’t true.

Worse still the Mail assumes the respondents were having fun with ‘publicly funded statisticians’. I wish! There were no statisticians involved in this research at any point in time, which is why it’s such a non-starter. No thought went into the statistical design of the study and no analysis was completed. So the Mail have us believe that public employees are being remiss, whereas actually nobody involved them at all.

But the issue I found most problematic was the Mail used this survey as an opportunity to exercise their other favourite topics of race and class, with the worrying statement: “You know and I know that a heaving inner-city comprehensive school full of sexually active Vicky Pollards is going to have more than its statistical share of pregnant 13 year olds – just as we know that the costly girls public school, priming its quite different intake for futures in medicine, law and manor houses, will have far fewer. By the same token youth workers will whisper privately that the ‘problem’ is greater among certain racial groups, particularly some African and Caribbean communities, and almost non-existent among certain others”.

When I saw the Mail piece a colleague said ‘well wouldn’t they have done this even if the survey had been good?’ And the answer was of course the Mail would still have had a go. However, if the survey had been robust, well completed and correctly analysed many of the Mail’s criticisms would have been easily dismissed. As it currently stands all that can be said in response to their feature is they’re being predictably bigoted around race and class, and they were wrong to see the government as funding the BareAll survey.

But because the survey itself was shoddy there Mail (and other conservative pressure groups and press outlets) can piggyback on the poor study to target young people – particularly girls, and particularly those who are poor and from ethnic minorities. The saddest part of this fiasco was that at least one of the media youth companies behind the survey claims to cater for a largely black audience – so how could they allow a study to give opportunities for racism directed at young black teens?

Somebody should be accountable when a survey like this goes wrong. But those behind the BareAll survey won’t care because for the most part they got coverage and column inches – so who cares if teenagers got bad press as a result?

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