OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - Teenagers and risky behavior seem to go hand in hand.
Parents, teachers, community leaders would like to know how best to discourage teens from engaging in risky behavior. Now, results of a decade-long study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center may point the way.
Roy Oman, Ph.D., and fellow researchers at the OU College of Public Health have just completed the Youth Asset Study, a 10-year research project aimed at learning what assets help teens avoid risky behavior.
Risky behavior in teens comes in many forms, including alcohol use, drug use, violence, weapon carrying, gang affiliations. However, Oman said the study found the most worrisome example of high risk behavior among teens is sexual activity resulting in pregnancy.
"Of the industrialized nations in the world, the United States has by far the highest teen pregnancy and teen birth rates," Oman said. "And then when you look at the states, Oklahoma has the fifth highest teen birth rate in the country."
To establish scientifically what factors or "assets" can help teens avoid engaging in risky behavior, the researchers conducted interviews with more than 1000 teens in their homes, as well as with their parents. An analysis of the data found strong associations between certain assets and risk avoidance.
"The strongest factor of all to avoid teen pregnancy was school connectedness," Oman said. By that he means teenage girls felt safe, happy, close to others and that they were treated fairly at their school.
"Among girls who felt connected to their school and trusted someone at school, they had almost a 50 percent lesser chance of becoming pregnant compared to those girls who did not have that particular asset,” he said.
Researchers found other assets that deterred teens from sexual activity, pregnancy and non-use of birth control. These included a youth's ability to make responsible choices and the presence of a non-parental role model in the teen's life.
"If they had any of those two assets, they were protected from all three risk behaviors,” Oman said.
Oman pointed out that the study found family assets are important too. These include parental monitoring, mother and father relationships with the teen and open lines of communication. Interestingly, the study also discovered that while underlying family values are no doubt present among these assets, they need not be made explicit.
"A child can have a strong asset like parent-child communication and it protects them from all these risk behaviors. And yet, none of the communication is about not doing these risk behaviors," he said.
The research found religion also can play a role in avoidance of high risk behaviors. "Religiosity" (strongly held personal religious beliefs) is an asset highly associated with non-initiation of sexual activity. So is investment of time in religious activities, though only for non-Hispanic white youth.
Prior to the Youth Asset Study, most efforts at risk prevention focused solely on the individual teen. But Dr. Oman believes the survey shows a need for a broader-based approach.
"We need to focus at least as much on parents and on the community environment as we do on youth when we try to prevent risk behaviors and promote positive behaviors," Oman said, adding that it's time to begin the "hard work" of getting parents, even reluctant parents, more involved in their child's life.
"I would never give up on the family," Oman said, "but even if the family is not fully functional, you could still then work at the community level, especially at schools, to try to improve the outcomes there."
The findings of the Youth Asset Study have just been published online by the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Other OU College of Public Health researchers involved in the study include Sara Vesely, Ph.D., Cheryl Aspy, Ph.D., and Eleni Tolma, Ph.D.