Apparently the flood of free internet porn is to blame for declining marriage rates.
At least among young men. Which really means that the internet is to blame for declining marriage rates, because:
(In researching this post, I stumbled across a Forbes.com article from 2011, that seems to suggest that Avenue Q was ahead of its time.)
But really, now, really?
Sure the study is silly, but it’s also probably harmless, and I was inclined to take a pass on covering it. Lots of weird correlations exist in the world. There’s no need to get worked up over every one of them.
But then the findings were picked up by no less than the Washington Post in a story by Roberto A. Ferdman (@robferdman) and my Twitter feed started exploding with 144 characters on why porn is ending marriage (and thus the world). Ugh.
The study in question, was published by the Institute for the Study of Labor (a German organization), and authored by Michael Malcolm of West Chester University of Pennsylvania and George Naufal of the Timberlake Institute. In arriving at their conclusion that porn ≠ marriage, Malcolm and Naufal analyzed internet usage by men between 18 and 35 during a four-year time span from 2002 to 2004:
Our sample consists of all men between the ages of 18 and 35, giving us a total of 1512 observations. Examining both men and women is problematic since it is generally understood that men and women face different incentives when making marital decisions. Furthermore, we focus on young men. This is not only because of the very steep age gradient in Internet usage, especially in the early years of the Internet, but also because this is the age range where men normally make a decision about marriage formation.
After all these observations, and adjusting for age, income, education, religiosity, and employment, the researchers concluded that getting married and internet porn don’t mix (from the Washington Post):
Broadly, higher Internet usage was associated with lower marriage rates. But pornography use in particular was more closely linked to those participants who were not married than any other form of Internet use, including regular use of financial websites, news websites, sports websites, and several others. The opposite, for comparison, was true for religious website use, which was positively correlated with marriage.
In other words, married men watch less internet porn. They also read fewer financial, sports or news websites, but to a lesser extent.
From this rather benign observation, the researchers concluded that internet porn is actually causing a decline in marriage (again from the Washington Post).
The reason, Malcolm explains, is likely tied to the relationship between marriage and sexual gratification. If pornography is viewed as a means of alternative sexual gratification, then it could be undercutting the need for marriages to serve this function, at the very least during a younger age. Think of it as a milder form of premarital sex.
I’ll admit, I can’t discern exactly how they made that giant and illogical leap into the abyss, but there appears to have been a good deal of math involved.
Enter the Much-Needed Voice of Reason.
Describing Malcolm and Naufal’s arguments for a causal link between internet pornography and declining marriage rates as “pure bunk,” Weissmann offers this comfortingly cogent explanation of the flaw:
To test causation, the authors picked two instruments. The first was the subject’s father’s level of education, which meant to show if time spent on the Internet affected men’s chances of getting married. The second instrument was whether they lived an urban area, which was supposedly meant to show if porn use itself influenced marriage. The authors reasoned that the sons of educated fathers would be exposed to more technology as children, so they would be more likely to use the Internet as adults. They figured that cities have better online infrastructure, so urbanites would be more likely to use porn.
Does that reasoning sound strange to you? It is. The problem is that there are lots and lots of other ways, aside from Internet or porn usage, that having an educated dad or living in a city could change your propensity to get married. People who live in major metro areas have lots of dating options and might not want to settle down. College-educated parents often teach kids to put their careers before their love lives. Malcolm and Naufal basically admit all of this in their paper. But, then they plead for leniency, writing: “Nevertheless, better instruments are not available in the dataset.” In other words, “Well, it’s all we got.”
But what they’ve got is meaningless, because, again, the instruments they chose could affect marriage rates in any number of manners.
Weissmann also points out that the studies’ “findings” could just have easily been labeled: Reading Forbes.com will Leave You a Lonely Spinster or HuffPost is Designed to Ensure Your Parents Die Without Grandchildren. But, of course, they weren’t, because men and porn get way more retweets.
Twitter has ruined science.
But I’m particularly bothered by this post because marriage rates are declining. It’s a real thing. And blaming porn (or the internet in general) ignores a very real area of social change.
What if, instead, we talked about the barriers (real or perceived) facing 18 to 35 year olds who want to marry: student loan debt, the 2008 recession, unemployment rates, stagnant earnings, and increasing income inequality (just for starters)? What if we took seriously that this generation (my generation) is marrying less and later than any before it, and stopped to ask ourselves why and if that’s really a problem.
So, if I could assign penance to WaPo, it would be this.
Do a real article on marriage that takes seriously the fundamentally different reality millennials face as they enter relationships and marriage. And try to deal honestly with what that means for a social, cultural and legal landscape that has operated around the assumption of the “marital family” for several hundred years. Take seriously the fact that families are changing in real and fundamental ways, and both the causes and the effects of that change are more important than your web traffic.
That is all.