Research of Note for October 2003

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Looking for Good News About Youth

State of Our Country’s Youth 2003
Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans
Available free at

When I started reading this report, I felt as if I might be entering an alternative universe, where the glass is always half full. It’s good to focus on the positive, which we don’t do enough when we study youth. But rose-colored glasses can distort research findings.

The Horatio Alger Association says it is “committed to helping young people overcome adversity and thrive in America’s free enterprise system,” and conducts an annual survey on the “State of Our Country’s Youth.” The association’s members are a diverse group, including Maya Angelou, Colin Powell, former TV host Art Linkletter and former Boston University President John Silber.

The 2003 survey is a solid source of information, based on more than 1,000 nationally representative youths ages 13-19 who were interviewed by telephone by a professional polling firm in late April and early May. Eighty-seven percent of them were in public schools, while most of the private-school students were enrolled in faith-based schools. Three out of four students were from families where at least one parent had attended college. Seventy percent were white, 12 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American, and 3 percent Asian.

The “At a Glance” summary is a little too rosy. For example, under the heading “Students are media, tech savvy” are such statistics as 100 percent of kids have TVs in their homes, and 58 percent have TVs of their own. That’s “tech savvy”?

The full report is more balanced. For example, after enthusiastically stating that 97 percent of the kids have computers in their homes, 84 percent have DVD players and 79 percent have video game systems, the report’s authors note that half the kids believe the media have a negative impact on morals and values.

On the Pollyanna side, the report says “students use some of these devices to satisfy their appetite for international news and information.” It says three out of four students “would like to learn more about world events and other cultures” and that 28 percent have turned to a foreign news source for information. The report acknowledges, however, that many of the latter are Hispanic youth who may be seeking news on Spanish-language programs.

The report also acknowledges that only 15 percent of the students say they use newspapers as their primary source of news, while more than one in three use TV news and 8 percent use entertainment shows, such as late night TV and MTV.

Good News/Bad News

Almost three out of four of the youths say they get along with their parents “extremely well” or “very well.” Those who have role models often cite family members (44 percent). Ten percent each cite teachers, friends and family friends, or entertainers, 8 percent cite sports figures, and 7 percent cite religious leaders. (The survey did not ask about youth group leaders.)

Half the youth say they would like to spend more time with their families. While that might sound like good news, it could also be bad (they don’t spend much time with their families now).

As for school, the report says there is considerable enthusiasm for sports, math, and science, but overall the kids give their schools a grade of only 2.9 (C+), up a bit from 2.7 in previous years. Their greatest enthusiasm is for the support they get from at least one teacher or administrator at school who cares about them and to whom they can talk.

The report is enthusiastic about one-third of the students saying they receive mostly A’s, with another one-third saying they get mostly A’s and B’s. The report therefore concludes that two-thirds of the students are on the honor roll! This seems unlikely, unless they’re from Lake Wobegon, where all kids are above average. It sounds more like wishful thinking on the part of the students and the report authors than an accurate assessment of students’ grades.

In light of Sept. 11 and the war with Iraq, the report’s authors point out that teens are resilient and have not let negative world events “dishearten their world perspective.” Three out of four say their outlook for their future is hopeful.

The report’s authors enthusiastically point out that only 8 percent of the students think pressure to use drugs or drink is a major problem, while 27 percent think it is a minor problem. Some researchers would add those together and say 35 percent think it is a problem, and that is substantial. Other researchers might question the question. After all, teens who experiment with drugs or alcohol and urge their friends to do so may not think the pressure is a problem, since they’re the ones applying it.

The report acknowledges other types of pressure: to look a certain way, to get along with family or friends and to have enough money are all reported by more than half the students as major or minor problems.

Overall, the report provides interesting insights into high schoolers, and is all the more useful because the survey has been published just a few months after the interviews were conducted.

Dating Violence Leads to Other Problems

Longitudinal Effect of Intimate Partner Abuse on High-Risk Behavior Among Adolescents
Timothy A. Roberts, M.D.; Jonathan D. Klein, M.D., M.P.H.; and Susan Fisher, Ph.D.
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 157, September 2003, pgs. 875-881.
Available from Dr. Roberts, Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, 601 Elmwood Ave., Box 690, Rochester, NY 14642.

On the other side of the youth analysis biz, a recent study of dating violence found a link with high-risk behaviors such as drug use.

The study is based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as Add Health, a survey conducted in the homes of more than 4,600 youths ages 11-21, who were first interviewed in 1995 and followed up approximately one year later.

This recent study focused on “intimate partner abuse,” which was defined as verbal abuse or mild forms of physical abuse, such as insulting you, treating you disrespectfully in front of others, swearing at you, threatening you with violence, pushing or shoving you, or throwing something at you that could hurt you. More severe physical or sexual abuses were excluded, and the survey did not measure whether the person interviewed was abusive to others.

Most (69 percent) of the students were white, 14 percent were black and 13 percent were Hispanic. Thirty-eight percent had no intimate partners when they were interviewed in 1995, and 32 percent had none when interviewed a year later. Some 273 boys (12 percent) and 302 girls (14 percent) reported abuse by at least one intimate partner between the first interview in 1995 and the second one a year later.

Those who reported abuse that started between the first and second interview were more likely to report illicit substance use, anti-social behavior, violent behavior, suicidal behavior and depressed mood at the initial interview and one year later. Illicit substances included tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. Anti-social behavior included theft, lying to parents, running away from home, destruction of property and similar behaviors. Violence in the previous year included a physical fight, injuring someone, a group fight, threatening someone with a weapon, using a weapon in a fight, and shooting or stabbing someone. Suicidal behavior was measured in terms of the frequency of thinking about suicide or attempting it.

The impact of dating violence differed for boys and girls. For boys, abuse starting after the first interview led to a greater decline in anti-social behavior, even though that behavior was still greater than for non-abused boys. For girls, abuse starting after the first interview was associated with increased levels of illegal substance use.

Not surprisingly, when the researchers adjusted for social class and demographic factors, reporting greater levels of abuse and having greater numbers of sexual partners was associated with more depression for both girls and boys.

What can youth workers do about these findings? Some youth workers see enough teen relationships to observe the kinds of abuse measured by this study, and can try to intervene. Those who don’t might consider how other symptoms they observe in teens, such as depression or drug use, might be warning signs of dating violence.

Obesity, TV and Soft Drinks

Television Watching and Soft Drink Consumption
Joyce Giammattei, Dr.P.H.; Glen Blix, Dr.P.H.; Helen Hopp Marshak, Ph.D., and colleagues
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 157, September 2003, pgs. 882-886.
Available from David Pettitt, Sansum Medical Research Institute, 2219 Bath St., Santa Barbara, CA 93105 or

A new study suggests that kids who spend more time watching TV and who drink more soft drinks – even diet drinks – are more likely to be obese.

The study was based on more than 400 sixth- and seventh-graders ages 11-13 in three schools in Santa Barbara County, California, during the 2000-2001 school year. Children who had diabetes or used a wheel chair were excluded from the study.

Because so few children were not Latino, white or Asian, other races and nationalities were excluded from the study.

More than 800 children were asked to participate in the study, but written consent was requested from parents, and only half (51 percent) agreed. In addition to being evaluated in terms of their height and weight, the children underwent body-fat measurements and blood tests (perhaps that’s why the consent rate was low). The children also filled out a questionnaire that was designed to be completed in 3 to 5 minutes. It included 18 lifestyle questions about TV viewing, sports, whether they walked or biked to school, soft drinks consumed per day, diabetes, and how they would rate their weight (overweight, just right or underweight).
Many of the children were obese: Eighteen percent were between the 85th and 95th percentiles for body mass index (BMI), and 17 percent were above the 95th percentile.

Obese children differed from their classmates on only two of the lifestyle questions: TV viewing and soft drink consumption.
Children who averaged two hours of TV or more on week nights had a BMI that was 48 percent higher than their classmates and had 5 percent more body fat. They also were 80 percent more likely to have a BMI above the 85th percentile. The connection between weight and video or computer games was similar, but not statistically significant.

Kids who drank three or more soft drinks per day had a BMI score that was 51 percent higher than kids who drank fewer soft drinks per day, had 4 percent more body fat and were almost twice as likely to have a BMI above the 85th percentile.

Surprisingly, obese children tended to drink more diet soft drinks rather than more regular soft drinks. Since their drinking habits for regular soft drinks and diet soft drinks were so similar, diet and regular soft drinks were combined in the rest of the analyses.

Latinos spent more time watching TV and drank more soft drinks than non-Hispanic whites or Asians. When ethnicity was controlled, TV viewing was no longer a significant predictor of obesity, but soft-drink consumption was.

Although interesting, this study is hard to interpret, because half the students in the schools didn’t participate.

Why did obese children differ from their classmates on only one activity and only one kind of food? The authors point out that perhaps TV viewing is connected to eating, while computer and video games require two hands and neither includes food advertisements (yet). They also speculate that kids who drink more soft drinks may also eat more junk food. Children who drink diet soft drinks might be doing so because they are already obese, rather than being obese because they drink diet soft drinks.

The study raises questions about TV viewing and soft drinks as symptoms of other problems, as well as habits that youth workers might want to try to curb rather than ignore or encourage.