RISK FACTORS FOR UNHEALTHY ADOLESCENT BEHAVIORS
The following is a summary of risk factors identified in longitudinal studies as predictors of adolescent health and behavior problems. The problem behaviors they predict are indicated in parentheses.
Community Risk Factors
Availability of drugs (substance abuse). The more easily available drugs and alcohol are in a community, the greater the risk that drug abuse will occur in that community (Gorsuch & Butler, 1976). Perceived availability of drugs in school is also associated with increased risk (Gottfredson, 1988).
Availability of firearms (delinquency, violence). Firearms, primarily handguns, are the leading mechanism of violent injury and death (Fingerhut, Kleinman, Godfrey, & Rosenberg, 1991). Easy availability of firearms may escalate an exchange of angry words and fists into an exchange of gunfire. Research has found that areas with greater availability of firearms experience higher rates of violent crime including homicide (Alexander, Massey, Gibbs, Altekruse, 1985; Kellerman, Rivara, Rushforth et al., in review; Wintenute, 1987).
Community laws and norms favorable toward drug use, firearms, and crime (substance abuse, delinquency, and violence). Community norms -- the attitudes and policies a community holds in relation to drug use, violence, and crime -- are communicated in a variety of ways: through laws and written policies, through informal social practices, through the media, and through the expectations that parents, teachers, and other members of the community have of young people. When laws, tax rates, and community standards are favorable toward substance abuse or crime, or even when they are just unclear, young people are at higher risk.
One example of a community law affecting drug use is the taxation of alcoholic beverages. Higher rates of taxation decrease the rate of alcohol use (Levy & Sheflin, 1985; Cook & Tauchen, 1982). Examples of local rules and norms that also are linked with rates of drug and alcohol use are policies and regulations in schools and workplaces.
Media portrayals of violence (violence). There is growing evidence that media violence can have an impact upon community acceptance and rates of violent or aggressive behavior. Several studies have documented both long- and short-term effects of media violence on aggressive behavior (Eron & Huesmann, 1987; National Research Council, 1993).
Transitions and mobility (substance abuse, delinquency, and school dropout). Even normal school transitions can predict increases in problem behaviors. When children move from elementary school to middle school or from middle school to high school, significant increases in the rates of drug use, school dropout, and anti-social behavior may occur (Gottfredson, 1988).
Communities characterized by high rates of mobility appear to be at an increased risk of drug and crime problems. The more the people in a community move, the greater the risk of criminal behavior (Farrington, 1991). While some people find buffers against the negative effects of mobility by making connections in new communities, others are less likely to have the resources to deal with the effects of frequent moves and are more likely to have problems.
Low neighborhood attachment and community disorganization (substance abuse, delinquency, and violence). Higher rates of drug problems, crime, and delinquency and higher rates of adult crime and drug trafficking occur in communities or neighborhoods where people have little attachment to the community, where the rates of vandalism are high, and where surveillance of public places is low (Murray, 1983; Wilson & Hernstein, 1985).
Perhaps the most significant issue affecting community attachment is whether residents feel they can make a difference in their lives. If the key players in the neighborhood -- such as merchants, teachers, police, and human and social services personnel -- live outside the neighborhood, residents' sense of commitment will be less. Lower rates of voter participation and parental involvement in school also reflect attitudes about community attachment. Neighborhood disorganization makes it more difficult for schools, churches, and families to pass on pro-social values and norms (Herting & Guest, 1985; Sampson, 1986).
Extreme economic and social deprivation (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Children who live in deteriorating neighborhoods characterized by extreme poverty, poor living conditions, and high unemployment are more likely to develop problems with delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout or to engage in violence toward others during adolescence and adulthood (Bursik & Webb, 1982; Farrington et al., 1990). Children who live in these areas and have behavior or adjustment problems early in life are also more likely to have problems with drugs later on (Robins & Ratcliff, 1979).
Family Risk Factors
A family history of high-risk behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). If children are raised in a family with a history of addiction to alcohol or other drugs, their risk of having alcohol or other drug problems themselves increases (Goodwin, 1985). If children are born or raised in a family with a history of criminal activity, their risk for delinquency increases (Bohman, 1978). Similarly, children who are born to a teenage mother are more likely to be teen parents, and children of dropouts are more likely to drop out of school themselves (Slavin, 1990).
Family management problems (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Poor family management practices are defined as a lack of clear expectations for behavior, failure of parents to supervise and monitor their children, and excessively severe, harsh, or inconsistent punishment. Children exposed to these poor family management practices are at higher risk of developing all of the health and behavior problems listed above (Patterson & Dishion, 1985; Farrington, 1991; Kandel & Andrews, 1987; Peterson et al., 1994; Thornberry, 1994).
Family conflict (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Although children whose parents are divorced have higher rates of delinquency and substance abuse, it appears that it is not the divorce itself that contributes to delinquent behavior. Rather, conflict between family members appears to be more important in predicting delinquency than family structure (Rutter & Giller, 1983). For example, domestic violence in a family increases the likelihood that young people will engage in violent behavior themselves (Loeber & Dishion, 1984). Children raised in an environment of conflict between family members appear to be at risk for all of these problems behaviors.
Parental attitudes and involvement in the problem behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, and violence). Parental attitudes and behavior toward drugs and crime influence the attitudes and behavior of their children (Brook et al., 1990; Kandel, Kessler, & Maguiles, 1978; Hansen, Graham, Shelton, Flay, & Johnson, 1987). Children of parents who excuse their children for breaking the law are more likely to develop problems with juvenile delinquency (Hawkins & Weis, 1985). Children whose parents engage in violent behavior inside or outside the home are at greater risk for exhibiting violent behavior.
In families where parents use illegal drugs, are heavy users of alcohol, or are tolerant of children's use, children are more likely to become drug abusers in adolescence. The risk is further increased if parents involve children in their own drug or alcohol-using behavior -- for example, asking the child to light the parent's cigarette or get the parent a beer from the refrigerator (Ahmed, Bush, Davidson, & Iannotti, 1984).
School Risk Factors
Early and persistent antisocial behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Boys who are aggressive in grades K-3 or who have trouble controlling their impulses are at higher risk for substance abuse, delinquency, and violent behavior (Loeber, 1988; Lerner & Vicary, 1984; American Psychological Association, 1993). When a boy's aggressive behavior in the early grades is combined with isolation or withdrawal, there is an even greater risk of problems in adolescence. This also applies to aggressive behavior combined with hyperactivity (Kellam & Brown, 1982).
Academic failure beginning in late elementary school (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Beginning in the late elementary grades, academic failure increases the risk of drug abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout. Children fail for many reasons, but it appears that the experience of failure itself, not necessarily ability, increases the risk of these problem behaviors (Jessor, 1976; Farrington, 1991).
Low commitment to school (substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Lack of commitment to school means the child has ceased to see the role of student as a viable one. Young people who have lost this commitment to school are at higher risk for the problem behaviors listed above (Gottfredson, 1988; Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1991).
Individual/Peer Risk Factors
Rebelliousness (substance abuse, delinquency, and school dropout). Young people who feel they are not part of society or are not bound by rules, who don't believe in trying to be successful or responsible, or who take an actively rebellious stance toward society are at higher risk of drug abuse, delinquency, and school dropout (Jessor & Jessor, 1977; Kandel, 1982; Bachman, Lloyd, & O'Malley, 1981).
Friends who engage in the problem behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). Young people who associate with peers who engage in a problem behavior -- delinquency, substance abuse, violent activity, sexual activity, or dropping out of school -- are much more likely to engage in the same problem behavior (Barnes & Welte, 1986; Farrington, 1991; Cairns, Cairns, Neckerman, Gest, & Gairepy, 1988; Elliott et al., 1989).
This is one of the most consistent predictors that research has identified. Even when young people come from well-managed families and do not experience other risk factors, just spending time with friends who engage in problem behaviors greatly increases the risk of that problem developing.
Favorable attitudes toward the problem behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). During the elementary school years, children usually express anti-drug, anti-crime, and pro-social attitudes and have difficulty imagining why people use drugs, commit crimes, and drop out of school. However, in middle school, as others they know participate in such activities, their attitudes often shift toward greater acceptance of these behaviors. This acceptance places them at higher risk (Kandel et al., 1978; Huesmann & Eron, 1986).
Early initiation of the problem behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, violence, teen pregnancy, and school dropout). The earlier young people drop out of school, use drugs, commit crimes, and become sexually active, the greater the likelihood that they will have chronic problems with these behaviors later (Elliott et al., 1986). For example, research shows that young people who initiate drug use before the age of 15 are at twice the risk of having drug problems than those who wait until after the age of 19 (Robins & Przybeck, 1985).
Constitutional factors (substance abuse, delinquency, and violence). Constitutional factors are factors that may have a biological or physiological basis (Hawkins & Lam, 1987). These factors are often seen in young people with behaviors such as sensation-seeking, low harm-avoidance, and lack of impulse control. These factors appear to increase the risk of young people abusing drugs, engaging in delinquent behavior, and/or committing violent acts.
Risk Factors for Health and Behavior Problems
Source: Howell, J. (Ed.). 1995. Guide for implementing the comprehensive strategy for serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.