The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. 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 are channeled into efforts to curtail adolescent risky behaviors. 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. 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 explore adulthood along several domains: health, economic success, family formation, and incarceration. We also seek to examine the relationship between family environmental factors and these 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.

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 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.