Student Well-Being

Teens’ Risky Behavior Tied to School Troubles

By Jessica Portner — December 06, 2000 3 min read
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How teenagers perform in school, and the peers they hang out with after classes, have more influence than their race or family-income level on whether they will drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or carry weapons, a national study released last week suggests.

Results from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, released Nov. 30, contradict the widely held view that race and income are the predominant influences on a young person’s likelihood of engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors.

For More Information

The report, Protecting Teens:Beyond Race, Income, and Family Structure is available from the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“We cannot make predictions with any degree of accuracy [about youths’ risky behaviors] based on the color of their skin or size of their parents’ bank account,” said Dr. Robert W. Blum, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and the lead investigator for the federally financed study. “The same factors that put black kids at risk put white kids at risk, and if we want to deal with these problems, we have to look beneath the surface.”

To uncover the data underlying their conclusions, the researchers analyzed an ongoing survey—known as the “Add Health” study—of 10,000 black, white, and Hispanic students in grades 7-12 who attended 134 schools across the country. The students in the nationally representative sample were asked about a range of behaviors, including whether they smoked, used drugs, drank alcohol, carried weapons, were sexually active, or had tried to commit suicide.

The researchers found that more than one of every four students surveyed—which would mean a total of 5 million students in those grades—said they had carried a gun or knife in the past year. One of every 10 students said they drank alcohol on a weekly basis. One in five 7th and 8th graders said they’d had sexual intercourse, while two out of three of the 11th graders said they’d had sex.

Academic Problems

The researchers then analyzed how individual characteristics and circumstances—including race and family income, school performance, and parental relationships—influenced those behaviors.

To determine how well a student was doing academically, the survey asked the young people how frequently they had problems with homework and whether they had academic troubles. Those students, regardless of their race or gender, who said they had “frequent problems with their schoolwork” were more likely to use alcohol, smoke cigarettes, become violent, carry weapons, and attempt suicide. Those findings resulted in “Protecting Teens: Beyond Race, Income, and Family Structure,” a paper co-authored by Mr. Blum and published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

The importance of the study, the researchers said, is that it shows on a national scale with a large sample of students that school performance—more than any other single factor—is a driving force in whether a young person becomes involved in drugs or violence. “School is critically important in the life of kids,” Dr. Blum said.

Confirming earlier studies, the researchers also found that students who spent a lot of time after school with their friends tended to be more likely to drink, smoke, have sex, and carry weapons than young people who spent their after-school hours in supervised settings.

After-School Support

The report reinforces the need for more after-school activities, said Brenda Greene, the director of school health for the National School Boards Association.

“If kids are having trouble with homework, maybe they aren’t getting the tutoring or mentoring or coaching they need,” she said.

Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the study supports what principals know: School success is a boost for students no matter what race they are or how much money their parents earn.

But he cautioned that while a student’s economic level may not predict risky behavior, its effect on academic performance shouldn’t be dismissed.

“Students who come from a low-income background often have quite a bit more to push against to feel good about their schoolwork,” Mr. Carr said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teens’ Risky Behavior Tied to School Troubles

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