The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. C. Adult Consequences of Adolescent Risky Behaviors


Although a large number of studies examining consequences of adolescent risky behavior look at these consequences in adolescence, some research has focused on adult outcomes. The relevant research is presented below according to the type of risky adolescent behavior investigated.


Childhood delinquency has been found to be related to various negative adult outcomes. Research points to a distinction between short-term delinquent behavior that the individual outgrows and "career" criminality. Sampson and Laub (1990, 1993), in some of the most comprehensive studies on this subject to date, used data from the Gluecks' (1950) study, which looked at 500 delinquent boys and 500 non-delinquent boys born between 1924 and 1935 and followed them for 18 years. They found that, in adulthood, delinquents were more likely to have various negative outcomes including: charged with offenses in the military, excessive alcohol use, general deviance, arrest, economic dependence (welfare), unstable employment, divorce and separation. They were also less likely to have graduated from high school. Sampson and Laub also determined that job stability in young adulthood, commitment to educational and occupational goals, and attachment to spouse all have a large inverse relationship with measures of adult crime and deviance, and are predictive of later behaviors. Delinquents who later develop social bonds, such as attachments to spouses or work, tended to have fewer problems in adulthood than did other delinquents. While there is substantial evidence that criminal behavior continues, social ties in adulthood can explain changes in criminality over the life span.

Males with childhood conduct disorder are more likely than other males to have antisocial personality disorder as adults and to suffer with alcohol and drug dependence (Offord and Bennett, 1994). They are also likely to commit more crime in adulthood and are more likely to suffer premature death (Kratzer and Hodgins, 1997). Among women, those with a conduct disorder are more likely to have an internalizing (emotional) psychiatric disorder as adults (Offord and Bennet, 1994). Like men, they also are more likely to commit crimes and abuse substances as adults; however, most girls with conduct disorders do not experience any of these problems. When assessing the links between delinquency and adult crime, Robins (1978, p. 611) notes, "[The diagnosis of] Adult antisocial behavior virtually requires childhood antisocial behavior [yet] most antisocial youths do not become antisocial adults". Although adult crime rates may be higher for those who were involved in delinquency, most delinquents do not commit crimes as adults.

Bardone, et al (1998) found that, after controlling for numerous confounding variables, conduct disorder at age 15 predicted several health outcomes at age 21 including more medical problems, lower self-reported overall health, lower body mass index, alcohol and/or marijuana dependence, tobacco dependence, daily smoking, more lifetime sexual partners, sexually transmitted disease, and early pregnancy. Studies examining the predictive power of childhood aggression have determined that children rated as aggressive at ages 8-10 were more likely to be rated as aggressive at age 32. Aggression in childhood also predicted conviction of a violent crime, unemployment, use of tobacco and illicit drugs, and driving while intoxicated. This predictive power decreased over time, but was still significant at age 32 (Farrington, 1991).

Vitelli's (1997) study of prison inmates found that those who were early starters (first arrest before age 14) had higher rates of substance abuse than late starters or inmates who were never juvenile delinquents. Late starters, however, had a higher rate of lifetime violence. Females and males who were identified as juvenile delinquents were also significantly more likely to perpetuate abuse in intimate relationships (Giordano, et al 1999). Although the specific longitudinal links between delinquency and adult outcomes have not been fully elucidated, Hagan (1997) has shown that involvement in delinquent subculture causes strain on school and work roles, which increase the likelihood that delinquents drop out of high school. Although school dropout did not appear to negatively affect them when interviewed in their early 20s, by the time they reached their mid-30s, they were more likely to be unemployed and to feel despair. Monk-Turner (1989) also looked at education and found that holding several background variables constant, high school delinquents complete fewer years of schooling. However, she also showed that, after controlling for years of schooling and other background variables, involvement in delinquency during high school did not significantly shape adult occupational status.

The few economic studies that explore the critical issue of inter-temporal linkage between youth risky behaviors and adult outcomes produce somewhat mixed results. Anderson, Mitchell, and Butler (1993) studied the effect of deviance during adolescence on the choice of jobs as adults. They analyzed data from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program surveys to ascertain whether deviance during adolescence increases the likelihood an individual will develop mental health disorders in adulthood and simultaneously has negative effects on educational attainment. They also investigated whether deviance during adolescence has indirect effects, through education and mental health disorders in adulthood, on the probability of working and occupational choice. Their results indicated that deviance during adolescence has significant negative effects on future labor market outcomes. Levitt and Lochner (2000) attempted to explore the effect of criminal participation status at young ages on educational outcomes, labor market outcomes, and family measures at age 30 using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-1979 cohort. There was only a small negative correlation between youth crime and adult work, which might be the result of unobserved heterogeneity. There were significant differences in educational attainments between criminals and non-criminals. They found no difference in marriage and fertility patterns.

Substance Use

Early substance use has been associated repeatedly with later substance misuse in adulthood. Using 1988 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data, Chou and Pickering (1992) found that early onset drinking poses increased risk for lifetime alcohol-related problems. Having a first drink at age 15 or younger increased the odds of later having 3 or more alcohol-related problems, which are similar to criteria for alcohol dependence. A delay in drinking until age 20 or 21 sharply reduced risk of developing alcohol-related problems. Grant and Dawson (1997), using cross-sectional data from the nationally representative National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey (NLAES), found for each additional year that passed before initiation of drinking, the risk for development of alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse decreased by 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively. 1 Even when controlling for family alcoholism, earlier age of initiation into alcohol consumption was associated with increased likelihood of alcohol dependence (Grant, 1998). In a longitudinal study, Guy, Smith and Bentler (1994) found that a general drug use factor in adolescence predicted drug use 12 years later in young adulthood. This study helps to confirm the idea that there is some stability of drug use across adolescence and young adulthood.

Prescott and Kendler (1999), using twin study structured psychiatric interviews, also found evidence for an association between early drinking onset and risk for alcohol dependence but less evidence for an association with alcohol abuse. They suggest that the relationship between alcohol initiation and diagnosis of alcohol dependence is non-causal so any attempts to prevent dependence by delaying the onset will probably not work. They argue that both early initiation of alcohol use and adult alcohol dependence are manifestations of vulnerability. Their shared vulnerability hypothesis claims that both behaviors tap into the underlying dimension of proneness to problematic alcohol involvement.

Jessor, et al.'s (1991) study revealed a relationship between youthful substance use and some, but not all, adult outcomes. These researchers studied the impact of a large array of risky adolescent behavior on adult outcomes with the use of longitudinal data drawn from two samples of young people in a single city. One sample consisted of junior high students first surveyed in 1969 and followed up several times until 1981 when they were ages 25-27 (the High School Study). The other group was made up of college freshman first surveyed in 1970 and then five more times in the next 11 years (the College Study). Their results provided support for the Problem Behavior Theory's relevance to problem behavior in young adulthood, rather than just in adolescence. Roughly the same proportion of variance was accounted for in explaining adolescent and young adult problem behavior using psychosocial variables related to this perspective.. Results provide evidence for a syndrome of problem behavior in young adulthood as well as in adolescence. Results showed that involvement in problem behaviors in adolescence was related to later engagement in problem behaviors in adulthood.

Outcome measures other than those related to problem behaviors were also examined, namely educational and occupational attainment. Deviant behaviors (behaviors that violate societal or legal norms apart from substance use) in adolescence were related to later decreased educational attainment (for all except the College Study women). For the High School Study men and women, multiple problem behaviors in adolescence were also predictive of decreased educational attainment in adulthood. They found no significant relationship between measures of psychosocial proneness from youth and later occupational attainment (composite measure of occupational prestige). When education was held constant, psychosocial proneness to problem behavior did account for variation in occupational attainment for the High School Study men.

Newcomb and Bentler's (1988) "precocious transitions" theory provides a challenge to Problem Behavior Theory in that the latter would suggest that the effects of adolescent drug use should be the same as the effects of general proneness to deviance. In an important study, Newcomb and Bentler found very specific consequences connected to different types of substances, rather than just one typical adult outcome. Newcomb and Bentler found that, consistent with their theory, illicit drug use during adolescence speeds up the typical developmental process and forces the adolescent user into adult roles without appropriate skills to handle them. An important step of development is missed when an adolescent is not allowed to gain any practice at these new roles. These "precocious" movements into adult roles increase the likelihood of failing at these roles in the long run.

Newcomb and Bentler (1988) approached the issue of adolescent risky behavior's connection with adult outcomes using a longitudinal design in which they surveyed junior high school students from 11 schools in Los Angeles County through their early twenties (1976-1984). These researchers were concerned primarily with the adolescent risky behaviors of alcohol and illicit drug use. In this highly influential study, they found a multitude of adult consequences associated with risky teenage behavior.

In their study, general drug use (including alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs) as an adolescent directly decreased the likelihood of attending college, but was associated with an increase in income in young adulthood. In addition, general drug use in adolescence was directly related to job instability. A few of the other young adulthood outcome variables of which adolescent general drug use was predictive were: earlier marriage, earlier childbirth, divorce, involvement in drug crimes, stealing, and psychoticism.

Each specific type of adolescent drug use revealed a different network of associations with young adult outcomes. In their final confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) model predicting adult outcomes from 12 substance use measures, hard drug use as a teenager was related to earlier family creation, less likelihood of graduating from high school, increased income, adult suicidal ideation, loneliness, and less social support. Marijuana use as an adolescent was positively associated with the number of times unemployment compensation was collected as an adult. Hashish use as an adolescent was only significantly related to more stealing episodes and job instability later in life. The influence of adolescent alcohol use appeared to work substantially differently than other substance use. Adolescent alcohol use apart from general drug use predicted earlier marriage. Adolescent alcohol use also predicted lower levels of property crimes, confrontational acts, loneliness, and college involvement; greater likelihood of full-time employment or being in the military; more social support; and happiness with one's sex life. They reported that adolescent alcohol use was also related to decreased social conformity and religious commitment in adulthood. These researchers speculated that early use of alcohol may help individuals become part of a social network by reducing inhibitions, thus enabling them to learn appropriate social competencies.

Newcomb and Bentler (1988) reported that cocaine use during early and late adolescence was associated with increased number of relationships, increased number of aggressive or confrontational acts, reduced number of theft episodes, reduced degree of happiness with being close to someone and increased chances of divorce in young adulthood. In another report, Newcomb and Bentler (1993) found that frequency of cocaine use in young adulthood was uniquely predicted by early illicit drug use and late adolescent alcohol use. The only unique outcome from adolescent cocaine use was dealing cocaine later in life.

Teenage drug use in Newcomb and Bentler's (1988) study showed very few direct effects on the young adult sexual behavior and relationship variables for women. The impact of the general drug use factor on young adulthood sex outcomes was mediated through teenage sexual behavior and social conformity. For women the only direct effects from adolescence to young adulthood were: adolescent hard drug use related to less happiness with being close to someone and greater number of relationships, and alcohol use related to greater number of steady partners. Similar to the results for women, there was a lack of a direct influence of early drug use on young adult male sex and relationship outcomes. The effects of drug use were again mediated through social conformity and early sexual involvement. The only direct effect of drug use on young adulthood sex and relationship variables for men was that cannabis use as an adolescent was related to an increased number of steady partners in adulthood.

Other researchers have also found evidence for a link between early substance use and precocious transitions to adult roles. Krohn, Lizotte, and Perez (1997) collected data using a 10-year wave panel study (Rochester Youth Development Study), starting with seventh and eighth graders. For females in their study, early substance use was associated with parenthood, living apart from parents, and the total number of precocious transitions. Early alcohol and drug use for males was related to getting someone pregnant, becoming teenage parents, dropping out of school, leaving the parental home, and accumulation of precocious transitions. In turn, those respondents who experienced off-time transitions to adult roles were more likely to be engaging in substance use in their early twenties, even when controlling for earlier substance use, peer use and other related variables.

Sexual Behavior

Another adolescent risk behavior that was examined as part of Newcomb and Bentler's (1988) study was early sexual involvement. Early sexual involvement ly predicted many outcome measures in young adulthood. Early sexual involvement for women was correlated with more dating competence, increased number of relationships, more frequent intercourse, greater likelihood of an abortion, and greater likelihood of contracting venereal disease. All of these outcome variables were also correlated with men's early sexual involvement (except for occurrence of an abortion), and additionally, less effectiveness of birth control and greater satisfaction with intimacy.

Precocious sexual behavior often has as its consequence teenage pregnancy, which in turn is related to several negative adult outcomes. Teenage parents, in comparison to their counterparts, are more likely to receive less education, be poor and receive welfare as adults (Hayes, 1987; Rosenheim, 1992). There is some evidence though that a particular subset of women may actually find some success later in adulthood even when following an alternative life course to the traditional route of high school graduation, employment, marriage, and childbirth (Furstenberg, Hughes, and Brooks-Gunn, 1992; Hamburg and Dixon, 1992). African American young women who are from extremely disadvantaged situations and who see few available employment options may start this series of life events with childbirth. kinship networks appear to be a necessity for success in this approach, functioning to support the young woman in establishing a household and caring for children. If child bearing is complete by age twenty, the young woman following this path can enter the work force at a young age without taking time off for childbirth or paying for childcare.