The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. Chapter IV: The Relationship Between Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment

08/01/2001

Most existing literature on adolescent risky behaviors concentrates on explaining the causes and correlates of the behaviors. A subset of the literature explores the relationship between the behaviors and long-term outcomes. Before we examine the relationship between engaging in adolescent risky behavior and subsequent adult outcomes, we show the distribution of ages of initiation for our sample by sex, race/ethnicity, and educational attainment (Table 2). With the exception of cocaine use, a majority of individuals have engaged in all of the behaviors by age 19. Only about 16 percent have not used alcohol and about 20 percent have not yet engaged in sex, whereas 37 percent have not committed any delinquent acts and 42 percent have not tried marijuana. Males are more likely than females to engage in any of the behaviors, and they start at younger ages.

Teenage alcohol consumption, marijuana use, and cocaine use are more prevalent among whites than either blacks or Hispanics. However, whites have the lowest rates of sexual initiation. Blacks, on the other hand, have the highest rates of sexual initiation with nearly 42 percent having initiated sex by age 15. Only 8.5 percent have not engaged in sex by the age of 19, compared with 22 percent of whites and 19.5 percent of Hispanics. While whites are the most likely to have committed nine or more delinquent acts, blacks have the highest rates of committing any delinquent acts.

Not surprisingly, most adolescent risky behavior is inversely correlated with educational attainment. High school dropouts have the highest rates of early alcohol use, though each educational group has about the same rate of alcohol initiation by age 19. High school dropouts are the most likely to use marijuana and engage in sex and do both at earlier ages than more educated individuals. They are also the most likely to commit delinquent or criminal acts and commit the most such acts. Only cocaine use does not appear to have any significant differences across educational group.

To determine if ages of initiation in the NLSY79 are consistent with those of other data sets, we examined means and medians for each risky behavior. It proved difficult to make exact comparisons because of the need to identify a similar age cohort from a similar time period, reporting at similar ages. However, the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA) provided a nearly perfect match for comparing ages of initiation for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. We used the 1985 NHSDA and selected respondents ages 20-28, the same ages NLSY79 respondents were in that year. NLSY79 respondents first reported their age of alcohol initiation in 1982 and ages of marijuana and cocaine initiation in 1984.

The two surveys compare favorably. Mean ages of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine usage in the NHSDA (for those who had initiated) were 16.17, 16.51, and 19.65, respectively. The comparable means from the NLSY79 were 16.67, 16.41, and 19.79. Medians also tracked well across the two surveys. Median ages of initiation in both surveys were roughly 16 for alcohol, 16 for marijuana, and 19 for cocaine. 12

Making comparisons for age of sex initiation proved more of a challenge. Most studies examine teenage sexual behavior and generally only for women. The best source of comparison is the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Our mean for age of sex initiation of 17.62 compares favorably to those found in the 1995 NSFG. In that year, NLSY79 respondents were 30-38 years old. Abma, et. al. (1997) report means from the 1995 NSFG of 17.8 for women ages 30-34 and 18.0 for women ages 35-39.

The National Survey of Adolescent Males (NSAM) provides perhaps the only possible measure for male sexual debut. However, NSAM cohorts are from a later time period and the respondents have not been followed far enough into older ages to make a good comparison. Using the NSAM, Ku, et. al. (1993) report a mean age of sex initiation for males of 15.4 in 1998 and 15.2 in 1991, measured when these males were between ages 17.5-19. Given that the NLSY79 capture later ages of initiation, our mean of 16.38 seems reasonable. When we restrict the NLSY79 sample to those who initiated before age 20, our mean is 15.9, closer to the NSAM results.

Table 2. Weighted Percent of Adolescent Risky Behaviors by Sex, Race/Ethnicity, and Educational Attainment

Adolescent Risky Behaviors

Sample Size Total Sex Race/Ethnicity Educational attainment
Male Female Non-black, non-Hispanic Black Hispanic High School Dropout High School Graduate Some college and up

Age of Alcohol Initiation

11-15

1830 20.4 25.25 15.36 21.61 13.61 20.40 30.05 20.97 17.97

16-17

3454 37.2 39.14 35.29 38.29 33.83 31.95 32.79 36.76 38.56

18-19

2585 26.9 24.80 29.03 27.03 26.51 25.72 21.15 27.21 27.70

not by age 19

1848 15.5 10.81 20.33 13.05 26.05 21.92 16.01 15.05 15.77

Age of Marijuana Initiation

11-15

1949 23.2 26.11 20.22 24.00 19.03 22.65 32.34 23.80 20.87

16-17

1813 22.3 24.17 20.37 23.22 19.62 16.95 21.27 23.98 21.00

18-19

1005 12.1 12.81 11.30 12.12 11.95 11.66 8.19 11.14 13.68

not by age 19

3828 42.4 36.90 48.11 40.65 49.41 48.74 38.21 41.09 44.45

Age of Cocaine Initiation

11-15

114 1.2 1.49 0.90 1.19 0.91 1.95 1.98 1.10 1.14

16-17

379 4.7 4.90 4.52 5.21 2.35 3.79 5.73 5.32 3.97

18-19

622 7.5 9.25 5.79 8.12 4.36 7.50 6.82 7.61 7.63

not by age 19

7454 86.5 84.36 88.79 85.48 92.37 86.76 85.47 85.97 87.26

Age of Sex Initiation

11-15

2487 21.7 29.68 13.49 17.98 41.98 22.89 41.59 26.13 13.76

16-17

3295 34.7 35.91 33.39 34.90 33.81 33.71 38.78 37.72 31.10

18-19

2167 23.8 18.90 28.95 25.30 15.70 23.90 13.31 22.79 26.90

not by age 19

1691 19.8 15.52 24.17 21.82 8.51 19.50 6.32 13.36 28.24

Number of times committed crimes/delinquencies in 1980

9+

1318 15.1 23.13 6.79 15.66 12.64 12.86 22.16 16.41 12.52

3-8

2288 25.3 29.61 20.80 25.42 24.98 23.76 26.25 25.95 24.45

1-2

2238 22.7 21.25 24.24 21.45 29.70 23.40 24.71 23.35 21.81

0

3476 37.0 26.01 48.17 37.47 32.68 39.98 26.88 34.29 41.21

Table 3 shows the distribution of age of initiation into each behavior by family type at age 14. Adolescents living in two biological parent (intact) families have the lowest rates of earliest initiation and the highest rates of latest initiation of all family types for nearly all behaviors. Nowhere is this more distinct than in sex initiation. About 17 percent of those in intact families initiate sex between ages 11 and 15 whereas most other family types range between 30-35 percent (although 41 percent of those living without either biological parent initiate in this age range). As late as age 19, 23 percent of those living in intact families have not yet initiated whereas only 7-12 percent of those in other family types has waited.

Interpreting behaviors for other family types requires caution. Those not living in families that include their biological mother are unusual. Only about 6 percent of the sample weren't living with their biological mothers at age 14. During the 1970s, when these individuals were teenagers, placement of a youth with his/her father was unusual. It may have occurred due to the death of the mother, due to an unfit mother, or perhaps because of the youth's behavior. A mother who is having difficulty with a teenager, particularly a son, may send the child to live with his father. Thus adolescents living only with their father may differ in ways not measured which could impact results. As a result, it would be pure speculation why we see that those living with fathers and stepmothers have the highest rates of early alcohol initiation, have the lowest rates of late initiation into marijuana use, and commit the most delinquent acts. Earliest initiation into marijuana occurs among those living with their mother and a stepfather. This group also is the most likely to commit at least 3 delinquent acts. On the other hand, those who are least likely to have not committed any delinquent acts are those living with only their fathers.

Table 3. Weighted Percent of Adolescent Risky Behaviors by Type of Family Structure at Age 14
Adolescent Risky Behaviors Family type at Age 14
Two biological parents Single mother Single father Mother with stepfather Father with stepmother No biological parents 
(relatives, non-relatives, institutions)
Sample Size 6763 1732 118 768 167 299
Age of Alcohol Initiation
11-15 18.91 23.42 30.31 24.15 32.21 29.15

16-17

37.40 36.46 30.83 39.77 37.04 31.28

18-19

28.72 21.03 23.49 22.86 18.53 18.90

not by age 19

14.98 19.08 15.36 13.22 12.22 20.68

Age of Marijuana Initiation

11-15

20.99 28.80 24.68 31.31 29.23 34.77

16-17

22.31 20.91 23.92 24.77 24.47 19.31

18-19

12.55 11.08 8.70 8.86 14.80 11.58

not by age 19

44.15 39.22 42.71 35.06 31.50 34.34

Age of Cocaine Initiation

11-15

0.94 2.09 0.00 2.11 0.97 1.90

16-17

4.02 6.06 10.93 8.42 6.40 2.35

18-19

7.25 7.06 6.06 10.74 10.00 8.33

not by age 19

87.79 84.80 83.01 78.73 82.62 87.42

Age of Sex Initiation

11-15

17.46 35.16 31.43 30.33 34.43 40.61

16-17

34.29 33.64 36.76 40.93 33.55 32.25

18-19

25.14 19.44 20.15 21.13 22.16 18.07

not by age 19

23.11 11.75 11.66 7.61 9.86 9.07

Number of times committed crimes/delinquencies in 1980

9+

14.07 16.74 18.23 19.98 22.78 14.06

3-8

25.34 23.92 26.60 28.39 17.13 26.86

1-2

21.92 25.28 32.62 21.42 28.07 28.30

0

38.66 34.06 22.55 30.21 32.02 30.78

Table 4 reveals some very interesting, and perhaps counter-intuitive, relationships between parents' education and ages of initiation. For alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine use, there is generally an inverse relationship between the age of initiation and the parents' educational attainment, i.e. the more education either parent has, the earlier their children engage in substance use. This stands out in several places. Individuals whose mothers are college educated have the highest rates of early alcohol initiation (23.14 percent between ages 11-15) and the lowest rates of post-teenage initiation (11.47 percent). Those with fathers who are high school dropouts have the lowest rates of adolescent and teenage alcohol usage (nearly 19 percent have not used alcohol by age 19 compared with 12-14 percent for the other three education levels). Rates of teenage usage of marijuana rise consistently with mothers' education and nearly so with fathers' education. Rates of teenage usage of cocaine also rise consistently with both mothers' and fathers' education (little cocaine usage occurs before ages 18-19).

This positive relationship between adolescent substance use and parents' education has been found previously in the literature (e.g. Zucker and Harford, 1983), but no adequate explanation has been put forward. It is possible that parents' education is a proxy for parental income. Other literature has found a relationship between family income and adolescent substance abuse (OAS, 2001). However, since parents' education should capture factors besides income including parental attitudes that have been found to be protective factors, this implies a very B dominating income effect. We are not able to control for income to determine if there are separate, perhaps countervailing impacts. Further study into this relationship would be valuable.

A much different pattern emerges for sex initiation, with sexual debut occurring later for children of more educated parents. There is a consistent relationship such that children of more educated parents are the least likely to initiate sex at young ages and are the most likely to wait until after their teenage years. For example, nearly 30 percent of those with college educated mothers have not initiated sex by age 19 compared with under 14 percent for those whose mothers are high school dropouts. Similarly, nearly 31 percent of those with college educated fathers do not initiate as a teenager compared with under 17 percent whose fathers are high school dropouts. Delinquency does not show consistent patterns, though in general children of more educated parents are least likely to have committed any delinquent or criminal acts.

Table 4. Weighted Percent of Adolescent Risky Behaviors by Parental Educational Attainment

Adolescent Risky Behaviors

Mother's Educational Attainment Father's Educational Attainment
High School Dropout High School Graduate Some College College Graduate High School Dropout High School Graduate Some College College Graduate

Sample Size

4020 3729 860 718 3569 2909 797 1203

Age of Alcohol Initiation

11-15

19.88 19.67 20.29 23.14 20.62 19.70 22.91 19.56

16-17

35.58 38.07 36.37 38.17 34.89 39.31 37.99 38.76

18-19

25.65 27.59 28.67 27.21 25.60 27.49 27.18 29.00

not by age 19

18.89 14.67 14.37 11.47 18.89 13.50 11.93 12.68

Age of Marijuana Initiation

11-15

23.07 23.07 21.52 23.34 21.98 23.81 22.40 23.96

16-17

22.40 22.45 20.36 23.29 21.79 23.50 22.30 22.03

18-19

9.39 12.19 17.46 13.10 10.34 11.68 12.59 16.45

not by age 19

45.14 42.29 40.66 38.26 45.89 41.01 42.70 37.56

Age of Cocaine Initiation

11-15

1.31 1.22 0.52 1.26 1.24 1.01 1.29 1.25

16-17

4.28 4.53 5.20 5.81 4.46 5.14 4.98 4.20

18-19

6.27 7.29 7.88 12.75 5.39 8.00 8.72 10.39

not by age 19

88.13 86.96 86.40 80.18 88.91 85.86 85.01 84.16

Age of Sex Initiation

 

11-15

28.65 18.45 16.54 15.22 25.61 20.46 16.76 12.40

16-17

36.38 35.71 30.59 28.67 35.12 36.35 35.39 29.68

18-19

21.08 25.72 24.18 26.34 22.35 24.74 23.95 27.00

not by age 19

13.90 20.12 28.69 29.77 16.92 18.45 23.89 30.91

Number of times committed crimes/delinquencies in 1980

9+

14.74 16.22 13.25 12.78 14.51 15.99 15.56 13.96

3-8

26.03 24.71 26.39 23.79 24.73 24.52 29.56 24.94

1-2

24.85 21.02 21.56 22.56 25.57 21.60 18.72 21.86

0

34.38 38.04 38.79 40.87 35.19 37.88 36.15 39.24

Although there may be some ambiguity about the degree to which other family environment measures are positive or negative influences on children, parental alcoholism is probably never viewed as good. The cross-tabulations in Table 5 clearly confirm this view. Across all measures, children of alcoholic parents engage in risky behaviors at younger ages and commit more delinquent acts. By age 17, over 64 percent have used alcohol, compared with 55 percent of those without an alcoholic parent. Fifty seven percent have used marijuana, nearly 9 percent have used cocaine, and 63 percent have initiated sex by this age. The comparable rates for children without alcoholic parents are 42 percent, 5 percent, and 53 percent, respectively. In 1980, over 45 percent had committed at least 3 delinquent or criminal acts, compared with 38 percent for the comparison group.

Table 5. Weighted Percent of Adolescent Risky Behaviors by Parental Alcoholism

Adolescent Risky Behaviors

Parent with Drinking Problem
Yes No

Sample Size

1545 6549

Age of Alcohol Initiation

11-15

24.54 18.76

16-17

40.04 36.63

18-19

21.97 28.82

not by age 19

13.45 15.79

Age of Marijuana Initiation

11-15

32.26 20.69

16-17

25.15 21.33

18-19

10.60 12.52

not by age 19

32.00 45.46

Age of Cocaine Initiation

11-15

1.89 0.92

16-17

6.81 3.95

18-19

11.09 6.71

not by age 19

80.21 88.42

Age of Sex Initiation

11-15

23.98 20.04

16-17

39.03 32.81

18-19

23.86 24.48

not by age 19

13.13 22.67

Number of times committed crimes/delinquencies in 1980

9+

17.06 13.68

3-8

28.34 24.38

1-2

23.22 22.77

0

31.39 39.18

Chapter Summary

  • Males are more likely than females to engage in adolescent risky behaviors, and they start at younger ages.
  • Whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to engage in substance use, but have the lowest rates of sexual initiation. They are the most likely to commit nine or more delinquent or criminal acts, but blacks have highest rates of committing any delinquent acts.
  • Most adolescent risky behavior is inversely correlated with educational attainment.
  • Adolescents living in intact families have the lowest rates of early initiation and the highest rates of late initiation for nearly all risky behaviors, especially sex initiation.
  • Higher levels of parents' education are associated with earlier substance use among adolescents, but also the latest sex initiation and the lowest likelihood of committing any delinquent acts.
  • Adolescents with alcoholic parents initiate risky behaviors at earlier ages and commit more delinquent acts than other adolescents.