I was in Stockholm for the first time a few weeks before Christmas, so I was intrigued when I recently came across a new book about a study that’s followed all the children born in that city in a single year throughout their lives from adolescence on. The book, Born in 1953, is by Sten-Åke Stenberg and it comes from Stockholm University Press. (It’s available to read free online in an open access version.)
The study, Project Metropolitan, began in 1966 with a questionnaire completed by the 15,000 children born in the city in 1953 and still living there. Parental consent was not sought and originally the study was going to be confined to boys, though this was not carried through. Two years after that first questionnaire, the children’s mothers were surveyed. And in the 1980s there was a third survey. The data was collated with other official records, but in such a way that individuals would not be identified.
There’s something rather poignant, I think, about researchers setting out on this project in the sixties knowing that, if successful, it would stretch so far into the future that they would never see its conclusion. A bit like planting trees. And there’s something rather poignant about seeing the hopes, anxieties and experiences of 13-year-olds in the 60s captured in the data.
‘The children of 1953 were born at a time characterised by optimism… Sweden was a country in which everything seemed to be changing for the better, a country on its way to becoming modern.’
Sweden was changing and the researchers wanted to know what early-life circumstances might increase an individual’s chances of flourishing later in life, and conversely what might predispose an individual to later experience mental health problems, or addiction or become involved in crime.
When the study began, the media were broadly supportive insofar as they took any interest in it. But in 1986 press coverage of the project suggested those included in the study had reason to be fearful, and by implication all Swedish citizens whose private life could be pried into, sparking a huge national debate.
Fear of state intrusion in private life – though the project was a university not a government one – was amplified by fear of computers. The head of the Swedish army even suggested the project might be a national security risk, if the data fell into the hands of a hostile foreign power. The project survived, but the debate raised questions that are with us still about who owns our data, and the uses to which it can be put.
My guest, Sten-Åke Stenberg, who currently heads the project, told me more about it, the debate over its ethics, and what has been learned from it.