The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. Chapter I: Statement of the Problem


The course of human development is not a series of random events. The lives of adults at any point in time are the result of previous choices and environmental influences. Primarily due to lack of good data, insufficient attention has been paid to the relationship between early life behaviors, the context in which they occur, and outcomes in later adulthood. This report seeks to examine several of these relationships to form a broad basis for further research. Although lifetime outcomes are undoubtedly shaped from birth (if not before), we specifically look at occurrences during adolescence and relate them to a set of adult outcomes.

Adolescence is often a period during which individuals try on new attitudes, roles, and behaviors. Some adolescents choose to engage in risky behaviors. For some, the experience will be one of experimentation, a passing phase. For others, it will be the beginning down a path to problems that follow them into adulthood. Every year millions of dollars and a multitude of effort are directed toward curtailing adolescent risky behaviors. Examples of these efforts include the recent multi-million dollar media campaign sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy with the intention of reducing the use and abuse of illegal substances among America's youth and the funding of abstinence-only education programs. The premise behind these initiatives is that risky adolescent behaviors put youth in danger for the occurrence of deleterious short- and long-term outcomes. Research to date has tried to explain who is likely to engage in these behaviors and whether they suffer negative consequences. For the most part, the consequences examined are typically short-term such as high school graduation, college enrollment, and teenage pregnancy. A few studies examine more adult outcomes. This study is a departure from most of the existing literature in focusing on longer-term adult outcomes. In particular, it is one of the few studies to use a large, nationally representative sample to examine a wide variety of adult outcomes.

We seek to establish whether there is a relationship between engaging in risky behaviors as an adolescent and negative consequences later in life. We also seek to examine the relationship between family environmental factors and adult outcomes in the presence of risk taking behavior. Specifically, we examine the roles of family structure, family socioeconomic status (as measured by parents' education), and the presence of an alcoholic parent.

We explore adulthood along several domains: health, economic success, family formation, and incarceration. By examining outcomes well beyond the adolescent years, this study provides a background to further study of the pathways through which youths pass to make successful or less than successful transitions into adulthood. It is important to measure outcomes well into adulthood. Adolescent outcomes may in no way represent whether a successful transition to adulthood will take place. Short-term adult outcomes may not represent individual resilience. Also, the measurement of these outcomes may be deceptive. For example, a drug user may not attend college, but instead enter the labor force full time. In the short run, this person may appear to have higher income than those who spend their time acquiring higher education.

Past research has shown that family factors influence the choice to engage in risky behavior as an adolescent. Other research has established that family environment is important for a successful transition into adulthood. Those who grow up in intact families and those coming from higher socioeconomic status (SES) families typically fare better in many dimensions, especially economic. If engaging in risky behaviors as an adolescent has long-term consequences, then one can ask if the family environment's impact on the transition to adulthood is through its influence on risk taking or whether there is an independent effect. In this report we do not model the relationship between family structure and the choice to engage in a risky behavior. However, unlike other literature, we allow engaging in risky behaviors as an adolescent to have a direct impact on adult outcomes. We contribute to the literature by exploring the relationship between adolescent family environment and adult outcomes while holding constant the adolescent's risk taking behavior.

Given a set of relationships between adolescence and adulthood, the natural step is to investigate the pathways between these two points. Why do some youths use drugs or engage in sexual activity and go on to lead successful lives while others encounter problems? Given the choice to engage in a behavior that has a higher likelihood of bad outcomes, what factors might restore the individual to a path to a successful transition? In a later chapter of this report, we address this question by focusing exclusively on those who have chosen to initiate into risky behaviors at early ages. Early initiators into risky behaviors are at the most risk for deleterious adult outcomes. Essentially, they have started down the "wrong" path. We re-introduce family structure and SES to address whether family environment matters for these early initiators and contributes to the successful avoidance of the potential downside effects of these behaviors. The findings of this chapter should lay the groundwork for future research into the factors that influence the pathways that lead to a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood.

In this report we explore the following questions:

  • Do youths engaging in risky behaviors face worse outcomes as adults?
  • Does the relationship between adolescent risky behaviors and adult outcomes vary by the type of behavior and the type of outcome?
  • What is the relationship between adolescent family environment and adult outcomes?
  • Given that a youth chooses to engage in a risky behavior, does family structure help reduce the likelihood of a bad adult outcome?
  • Within a given family structure, does socioeconomic status (SES) as measured by parents' education impact the likelihood of a bad adult outcome?

We examine five adolescent risky behaviors: alcohol usage, marijuana usage, cocaine usage, sexual activity, and delinquency. Each of these is measured using age of initiation except for delinquency, which is a measure of the total number of delinquent and/or criminal acts in 1980. A significant contribution of this study is that outcomes are measured well into adulthood and not immediately at or near adolescence. The outcomes we study are measured generally in the late twenties or early thirties.

The next chapter of this report reviews the literature associated with adolescent risk taking and family environment, with particular attention to their relationships with adolescent and adult outcomes. Chapter III describes the data and methods used in our analysis. One of the major strengths of the analysis is the use of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth--1979 (NLSY79), a large nationally representative sample of individuals who have been interviewed regularly since they were adolescents in 1979. The NLSY79 is an omnibus survey, rich in details about the lives of these individuals during their adolescence and well into their adulthood. It offers multiple measures of adolescent risky behaviors and adult outcomes. Chapter IV provides context for how the measures of adolescent risky behaviors relate to the family environment measures for the NLSY79 sample.

The main analysis of the study begins in Chapter V. In this chapter, we report results of regressions relating adult outcomes to adolescent risky behaviors, family structure, parents' education, and parental alcoholism. Given a general conclusion that early initiation into risky behaviors is associated with poor adult outcomes, we turn in Chapter VI to focus on those who have chosen to initiate into one or more risky behaviors at early ages. These adolescents have chosen to follow a path that has a higher likelihood of negative consequences. We examine whether family structure and parents' education are associated with the adult outcomes obtained by these early initiators. That is, can family environment help a youth headed down the "wrong" path avoid the negative consequences associated with that path. This analysis is intended to lay the groundwork for further studies of the pathways adolescents follow in their transition to adulthood. We conclude the report in Chapter VII with a discussion of the main implications of our findings and a set of future directions for continued analysis.