Glossary

Glossary

Administrative data

Administrative data is the term used to describe everyday data about individuals collected by government departments and agencies. Examples include exam results, benefit receipt and National Insurance payments.

Attrition

Attrition is the discontinued participation of study participants in a longitudinal study. Attrition can reflect a range of factors, from the study participant not being traceable to them choosing not to take part when contacted. Attrition is problematic both because it can lead to bias in the study findings (if the attrition is higher among some groups than others) and because it reduces the size of the sample.

Body mass index

Body mass index is a measure used to assess if an individual is a healthy weight for their height. It is calculated by dividing the individual’s weight by the square of their height, and it is typically represented in units of kg/m2.

Cohort studies

Cohort studies are concerned with charting the lives of groups of individuals who experience the same life events within a given time period. The best known examples are birth cohort studies, which follow a group of people born in a particular period.

Complete case analysis

Complete case analysis is the term used to describe a statistical analysis that only includes participants for which we have no missing data on the variables of interest. Participants with any missing data are excluded.

Conditioning

Conditioning refers to the process whereby participants’ answers to some questions may be influenced by their participation in the study – in other words, their responses are ‘conditioned’ by their being members of a longitudinal study. Examples would include study respondents answering questions differently or even behaving differently as a result of their participation in the study.

Confounding

Confounding occurs where the relationship between independent and dependent variables is distorted by one or more additional, and sometimes unmeasured, variables. A confounding variable must be associated with both the independent and dependent variables but must not be an intermediate step in the relationship between the two (i.e. not on the causal pathway).

For example, we know that physical exercise (an independent variable) can reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease (a dependent variable). We can say that age is a confounder of that relationship as it is associated with, but not caused by, physical activity and is also associated with coronary health. See also ‘unobserved heterogeneity’, below.

Cross-sectional

Cross-sectional surveys involve interviewing a fresh sample of people each time they are carried out. Some cross-sectional studies are repeated regularly and can include a large number of repeat questions (questions asked on each survey round).

Data harmonisation

Data harmonisation involves retrospectively adjusting data collected by different surveys to make it possible to compare the data that was collected. This enables researchers to make comparisons both within and across studies. Repeating the same longitudinal analysis across a number of studies allows researchers to test whether results are consistent across studies, or differ in response to changing social conditions.

Data imputation

Data imputation is a technique for replacing missing data with an alternative estimate. There are a number of different approaches, including mean substitution and model-based multivariate approaches.

Data linkage

Data linkage simply means connecting two or more sources of administrative, educational, geographic, health or survey data relating to the same individual for research and statistical purposes. For example, linking housing or income data to exam results data could be used to investigate the impact of socioeconomic factors on educational outcomes.

Dummy variables

Dummy variables, also called indicator variables, are sets of dichotomous (two-category) variables we create to enable subgroup comparisons when we are analysing a categorical variable with three or more categories.

General ability

General ability is a term used to describe cognitive ability, and is sometimes used as a proxy for intelligent quotient (IQ) scores.

Heterogeneity

Heterogeneity is a term that refers to differences, most commonly differences in characteristics between study participants or samples. It is the opposite of homogeneity, which is the term used when participants share the same characteristics. Where there are differences between study designs, this is sometimes referred to as methodological heterogeneity. Both participant or methodological differences can cause divergences between the findings of individual studies and if these are greater than chance alone, we call this statistical heterogeneity. See also: unobserved heterogeneity.

Household panel surveys

Household panel surveys collect information about the whole household at each wave of data collection, to allow individuals to be viewed in the context of their overall household. To remain representative of the population of households as a whole, studies will typically have rules governing how new entrants to the household are added to the study.

Kurtosis

Kurtosis is sometimes described as a measure of ‘tailedness’. It is a characteristic of the distribution of observations on a variable and denotes the heaviness of the distribution’s tails. To put it another way, it is a measure of how thin or fat the lower and upper ends of a distribution are.

Longitudinal studies

Longitudinal studies gather data about the same individuals (‘study participants’) repeatedly over a period of time, in some cases from birth until old age. Many longitudinal studies focus upon individuals, but some look at whole households or organisations.

Non-response bias

Non-response bias is a type of bias introduced when those who participate in a study differ to those who do not in a way that is not random (for example, if attrition rates are particularly high among certain sub-groups). Non-random attrition over time can mean that the sample no longer remains representative of the original population being studied. Two approaches are typically adopted to deal with this type of missing data: weighting survey responses to re-balance the sample, and imputing values for the missing information.

Observational studies

Observational studies focus on observing the characteristics of a particular sample without attempting to influence any aspects of the participants’ lives. They can be contrasted with experimental studies, which apply a specific ‘treatment’ to some participants in order to understand its effect.

Panel studies

Panel studies follow the same individuals over time. They vary considerably in scope and scale. Examples include online opinion panels and short-term studies whereby people are followed up once or twice after an initial interview.

Percentiles

A percentile is a measure that allows us to explore the distribution of data on a variable. It denotes the percentage of individuals or observations that fall below a specified value on a variable. The value that splits the number of observations evenly, i.e. 50% of the observations on a variable fall below this value and 50% above, is called the 50th percentile or more commonly, the median.

Prospective study

In prospective studies, individuals are followed over time and data about them is collected as their characteristics or circumstances change.

Recall error or bias

Recall error or bias describes the errors that can occur when study participants are asked to recall events or experiences from the past. It can take a number of forms – participants might completely forget something happened, or misremember aspects of it, such as when it happened, how long it lasted, or other details. Certain questions are more susceptible to recall bias than others. For example, it is usually easy for a person to accurately recall the date they got married, but it is much harder to accurately recall how much they earned in a particular job, or how their mood at a particular time.

Record linkage

Record linkage studies involve linking together administrative records (for example, benefit receipts or census records) for the same individuals over time.

Reference group

A reference group is a category on a categorical variable to which we compare other values. It is a term that is commonly used in the context of regression analyses in which categorical variables are being modelled.

Residuals

Residuals are the difference between your observed values (the constant and predictors in the model) and expected values (the error), i.e. the distance of the actual value from the estimated value on the regression line.

Respondent burden

Respondent burden is a catch all phrase that describes the perceived burden faced by participants as a result of their being involved in a study. It could include time spent taking part in the interview and inconvenience this may cause, as well as any difficulties faced as a result of the content of the interview.

Retrospective study

In retrospective studies, individuals are sampled and information is collected about their past. This might be through interviews in which participants are asked to recall important events, or by identifying relevant administrative data to fill in information on past events and circumstances.

Sample

Sample is a subset of a population that is used to represent the population as a whole. This reflects the fact that it is often not practical or necessary to survey every member of a particular population. In the case of birth cohort studies, the larger ‘population’ from which the sample is drawn comprises those born in a particular period. In the case of a household panel study like Understanding Society, the larger population from which the sample was drawn comprised all residential addresses in the UK.

Sampling frame

A sampling frame is a list of the target population from which potential study participants can be selected.

Skewness

Skewness is the measure of how assymetrical the distribution of observations are on a variable. If the distribution has a more pronounced/longer tail at the upper end of the distribution (right-hand side), we say that the distribution is negatively skewed. If it is more pronounced/longer at the lower end (left-hand side), we say that it is positively skewed.

Study participants

Study participants are the individuals who are interviewed as part of a longitudinal study.

Survey weights

Survey weights can be used to adjust a survey sample so it is representative of the survey population as a whole. They may be used to reduce the impact of attrition on the sample, or to correct for certain groups being over-sampled.

Sweep

The term used to refer to a round of data collection in a particular longitudinal study (for example, the age 7 sweep of the National Child Development Study refers to the data collection that took place in 1965 when the participants were aged 7). Note that the term wave often has the same meaning.

Target population

The population of people that the study team wants to research, and from which a sample will be drawn.

Tracing (or tracking)

Tracing (or tracking) describes the process by which study teams attempt to locate participants who have moved from the address at which they were last interviewed.

Unobserved heterogeneity

Unobserved heterogeneity is a term that describes the existence of unmeasured (unobserved) differences between study participants or samples that are associated with the (observed) variables of interest. The existence of unobserved variables means that statistical findings based on the observed data may be incorrect.

Variables

Variables is the term that tends to be used to describe data items within a dataset. So, for example, a questionnaire might collect information about a participant’s job (its title, whether it involves any supervision, the type of organisation they work for and so on). This information would then be coded using a code-frame and the results made available in the dataset in the form of a variable about occupation. In data analysis variables can be described as ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’, with the dependent variable being a particular outcome of interest (for example, high attainment at school) and the independent variables being the variables that might have a bearing on this outcome (for example, parental education, gender and so on).

Wave

The term used to refer to a round of data collection in a particular longitudinal study (for example, the age 7 wave of the National Child Development Study refers to the data collection that took place in 1965 when the participants were aged 7). Note that the term sweep often has the same meaning.

Learning Hub

What influences pre-teens to drink alcohol?

Teenage Bullying

Regular heavy drinking in early adolescence has been linked to taking part in other risky behaviours and negative educational outcomes. Longitudinal research can provide valuable insight into the factors linked to alcohol consumption during adolescence.

Key finding

Children whose mothers and peers drink alcohol are more likely to have already tried alcohol by the age of 11.

About the research

Researchers from UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health analysed data from the sweep of the Millennium Cohort Study that took place when cohort members were aged 11. They were interested in finding out what factors were associated with a greater propensity for respondents to have reported ever having tried an alcoholic drink. In addition to the public health concerns raised by binge drinking and persistent drinking in youth, it has also been recognised that adolescent drinking is associated with other risky behaviours. Whilst many previous studies had focused on alcohol consumption in mid and late teenage years, less is known about the factors that influence drinking initiation at the beginning of adolescence.

Research questions

  • What is the association between parental and friends’ drinking habits and reported drinking among 11 year olds?
  • What are the roles of perceptions of harm, expectancies towards alcohol, parental supervision and family relationship on reported drinking among 11 year olds?

Study used

Millennium Cohort Study

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is following the lives of 19,517 children born across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2000-01.

Data and definition

Drinking at age 11

Drinking at age 11 was derived from the question on the Age 11 MCS survey asking cohort members “Have you ever had an alcoholic drink? That is more than a few sips?”

Overall, 13.6% of the sample reported having ever had an alcoholic drink.

Parents and friends drinking habits

Parents of cohort members were asked how frequently they consumed alcohol per week and how much alcohol they consumed on a typical occasion. On the basis of these responses a derived variable categorised mothers and fathers into three drinking habit groups: ‘None’, ‘Light/Moderate’ and ‘Heavy/Binge’; those for whom there were no data were categorised into a fourth group.

For friends’ drinking habits, cohort members were asked: “How many of your friends drink alcohol?”. Response categories were recoded: None of them as No; Some/Most/All of them as Yes; don’t know was retained as a separate category.

Key findings

Findings support interventions working at multiple levels that incorporate family and peer factors to help shape choices around risky behaviours including drinking.

Cohort members whose mothers drank were more likely to drink; Cohort members whose fathers drank were also more likely to drink but these estimates lost statistical significance when covariates were adjusted for.

Having friends who drank was strongly associated with cohort member drinking.

Associated with reduced odds of cohort member drinking were: heightened perception of harm from 1–2 drinks daily, and negative expectancies towards alcohol. Associated with increased odds of cohort member drinking were: positive expectancies towards alcohol; not being supervised on weekends and weekdays; frequent battles of will; and not being happy with family.

Advantages and challenges of using longitudinal data to study pre-teen alcohol consumption

Birth cohort studies provide an opportunity to understand risky behaviours such as drinking during young people’s development. Adolescence and pre-adolescence are times of dramatic change in young people’s lives. By using a multidisciplinary cohort study it is possible to include a range of contextual factors that may influence young people’s experiences and relationships.

Nonetheless, the analysis undertaken here uses data from only one wave of the study and is therefore, strictly speaking, cross-sectional in nature. The MCS, whilst rich in contextual information, variables on cohort member and friends' drinking, perceptions of harm and expectancies around drinking are only available from one wave of data collection. This means that the analysis focuses on correlations between pre-teen behaviours and their parents and friends drinking habits without being able to draw any causal inference.

Moreover, the data relies on young people’s self-report of alcohol consumption, which has been shown to be highly susceptible to response bias. The cohort members themselves also provide their estimates for their friends’ alcohol consumption and thus this too may be prone to under or over estimation.

Implications for policy and practice

It is well established that frequent heavy alcohol consumption is a major public health concern and understanding the factors and circumstances that influence pre-teens to start to drink alcohol is important in developing alcohol harm reduction strategies.

The findings of this analysis support developing policies working at multiple levels that incorporate family and peer factors. By supporting effective, targeted strategies, there is an opportunity to reduce the harmful behaviours associated with drinking alcohol, through intervention early in the life course.

Access the paper

Kelly, Y., Goisis, A., Sacker, A. et al. What influences 11-year-olds to drink? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. BMC Public Health 16, 169 (2016) doi:10.1186/s12889-016-2847-x

Discussion topics

  • What would be the added value of incorporating data from subsequent sweeps of data in the MCS?
  • To what extent is young people’s relationship with alcohol specific to the society in which they grown up? How might the effect of cultural differences be examined?
  • What other modes of data collection could be used to overcome the challenges associated with young people’s self-reporting of alcohol consumption?