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Long-Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment.

Publication Date

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.


This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth--1979 cohort (NLSY79). The NLSY79 is a large, nationally representative, omnibus survey sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over 12,000 youths ages 14-22 were first interviewed in 1979. They have been re-interviewed annually through 1994 and biennially since. The ongoing sample includes over-samples of blacks and Hispanics. The sample has seen remarkably low attrition with over 84 percent having been interviewed in 1998 (the most recent year of data available at the time of this study).

The NLSY79 focuses on labor market behavior with information collected on aspects of the respondents' lives which are thought to influence, or be influenced by, their labor market behavior. The survey routinely collects information on education, job training, marriage, fertility, household composition, health status, income, and assets. In selected years, additional information on such things as alcohol consumption and drug usage has been collected.

The advantage of using the NLSY79 is the availability of measures of long-term adult outcomes in a continuous context. The youngest respondent in the NLSY79 turned 34 in 1998. Over the years of the survey, we see the respondents (generally) complete their education, develop their careers, and form families. Also, we have observations of certain behaviors such as alcohol use and drug use at multiple points in time.

Due to data limitations, we restrict our measures of adolescent risky behaviors to retrospective reports on age of initiation. The one exception to this is in reports of delinquent and criminal behaviors. In this case, questions were included in 1980, when the respondents were 15-23 years old. While the analysis must be limited in certain ways, the NLSY79 strength is its inclusion of a wide variety of long-term adult outcomes.

Main Findings

There is a fairly consistent pattern that engaging in risky behaviors as a teenager is associated with less successful adult outcomes. In most cases, the earlier one engages in the behavior, the more likely one faces a bad outcome as an adult. The most consistent predictor of a bad adult outcome is age of initiation into sexual activity. Alcohol usage, on the other hand, is perhaps the one teenage behavior least associated with bad adult outcomes. Age of initiation into alcohol usage is, however, associated with adult alcohol abuse or dependence. None of our results, including these findings for sex and alcohol initiation should be interpreted as causing the adult outcomes. These are statistical associations, not causal relationships. Age of initiation into any particular risky behavior may be associated with unmeasured adolescent characteristics or circumstances that are related to the transition into adulthood. In other words, there may be a personal or family characteristic which influences both early sex initiation (for example) and a bad adult outcome. By not having measured this relevant characteristic, we would incorrectly attribute the cause of the bad adult outcome to early sex initiation.

Our findings indicate that family structure effects differ by outcome domain measured. Adolescents who reside in intact families at age 14 clearly have the least likelihood of a bad economic outcome and are less likely to spend time in jail. This is less clear for health and family formation outcomes. Adolescents living in single mother headed households at age 14 do not fare as well as those in intact families in economic outcomes, but compare favorably along other domains. Interestingly, the presence of a biological father in the household at age 14 is associated with lower levels of adult alcohol disorders or drug usage. Adolescents living with a single mother or single father at age 14 are less likely to have married by age 33 compared with those who lived in either intact or re-married families.

We found similar associations when examining the relationship of parents' education to long-term adult outcomes. Having more educated parents is associated with better economic outcomes and less likelihood of going to jail. However, there are contradictory results for the health domains where mothers' education is associated with lower likelihood of adult alcohol problems, but greater likelihood of adult drug usage. Fathers' education had exactly the opposite associations across the two outcomes. These family structure and parents' education relationships generally held even when restricting the sample to those who initiated early into risky behaviors. The results for parents' education held even when further restricting the sample to either intact families or single mother households. There is a sense that although the family may not have prevented the youth from starting down a "wrong" path, it can help them from having that choice lead to bad consequences.

Our results suggest that the ways in which parents help prevent bad outcomes for their children differ across different domains. For economic outcomes, parents can use their resources (financial, networks, etc.) to send their children to college, help them get jobs, and serve as a fallback to prevent financial problems. There is probably a similar mechanism for keeping their children out of jail. However, for non-economic domains, particularly those of substance abuse, a different set of family processes contributes to an eventual healthy adulthood.