Research of Note for April 2004

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New studies on suicide, TV and video games, and concealed weapons add to youth workers’ knowledge of the many influences on the lives of adolescents. The news isn’t always good, but the information can be helpful to anyone who works with kids.

Do Friendships Influence Suicidal Thoughts?

Suicide and Friendships Among American Adolescents
Peter Bearman, Ph.D., and James Moody, Ph.D.
American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 94, January 2004, pgs. 89-95
Available free at

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which is funded by 18 government agencies and commonly referred to in the field as “Add Health”) is a gold mine of information, especially for studying events that are relatively rare, such as suicide. This new report on suicide and friendships is based on answers in 1994 and 1995 to that survey from more than 13,000 youth in grades 7 through 12.

In this study, the term “suicidal thoughts” is not defined as one or two thoughts about suicide. It refers to repeated thoughts and imagining oneself committing suicide.

Adolescents were more likely to have these kinds of suicidal thoughts if they engaged in fewer activities with their parents, if there was a gun in the house, and if a family member or friend had attempted suicide in the past year. The impact of a friend’s suicide was extremely strong. Other important influences were depression, feelings of romantic attraction to someone of the same sex, or frequently getting drunk or high. Boys and girls with high self-esteem were less likely to think about suicide.

Younger girls were more likely to think about suicide than were older girls. For girls, being socially isolated or in transitory friendships increased the likelihood of suicidal thoughts. These variables had no impact on boys.

Girls who thought about suicide were more likely to be overweight (as measured by a higher body mass index), to have experienced forced sexual relations or to have had more fights in the past year. These traits were not associated with suicidal thoughts among boys.

The senior author, Peter Bearman, tells Research Watch that “there are few, if any, clear factors that determine whether or not an adolescent who thinks about suicide will attempt suicide. That means that if an adolescent talks about suicide, adults should pay attention.”

He advises youth workers to try to get a sense of “whether or not all is well in the peer environment.” For girls especially, having conflicts with peers or being socially isolated means it is more likely that they will think about suicide.

Among boys, having access to a gun is very important. “Having a gun in the household is the single most important factor that distinguishes between those teenage boys who think about suicide and then attempt it from those who just think about it,” Bearman says.

Weight, TV and Video Games: The Weakest Link?

Linking Obesity and Activity Level with Children’s Television and Video Game Use

Elizabeth Vandewater, Mi-suk Shim and Allison Caplovitz
Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 27, February 2004, pgs. 71-85
Available free online at Search for Journal of Adolescence, click on Vol. 27, Issue 1.

Several studies have established a link between obesity and TV viewing and video game use, but how strong is that link? Strong enough to worry about?

There are several theories about why TV viewing and playing video games seem to be linked to weight. The Couch Potato hypothesis says that time spent watching TV and playing video games is time not spent getting physical exercise. The TV-Watching Glutton hypothesis says that commercials for fattening foods influence kids to ask for and eat those foods, and the ads make kids want to eat while watching TV. One study, which was not replicated by other researchers, even showed that kids watching TV tended to have slower metabolisms, which could result in weight gain.

This new study attempted to determine whether the link between weight, TV viewing and video game playing is real. The researchers used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a national survey that includes a disproportionate number of low-income families and minorities. This study is based on a sample of 2,831 children ages 1 through 12. It uses body mass index to measure obesity and time-use diaries to estimate the time spent watching TV and playing videos.

The children were divided almost evenly by gender. The racial breakdown was about 49 percent white, 39 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. Because this is not an accurate representation of the U.S. population, the researchers “weighted” the statistics to make them nationally representative.

How did the children spend their time? On an average day, they spent 226 minutes watching TV, 21 minutes playing video games on a TV or computer, 12 minutes on a computer for activities other than games, and 22 minutes reading or being read to one-on-one. They spent 68 minutes on highly active sports, 47 minutes on “moderately” active activities (such as fishing, boating, camping and singing), and 79 minutes on sedentary activities such as talking on the phone and playing board games (excluding time in front of the TV or computer).

The researchers report that there was no correlation between weight and TV viewing, but that children (especially girls) who spent more time on video games tended to be more overweight. Underweight kids tended to either play video games a lot or not at all. There was no correlation between weight and other activities. However, sedentary kids tended to weigh more, regardless of age or gender.

The authors point out that even when there was a correlation, that doesn’t mean that the activity (or lack thereof) caused the weight problem. For example, it could be that overweight girls have fewer friends, and that’s why they play more video games.

The results have two limitations. First, the data were collected seven years ago, and the use of video games has probably increased substantially since then. The findings could be different today.

Second, there are many ways to measure time spent watching TV or playing video games. Looking at the exact number of hours might not show as much impact as comparing kids who spend a great deal of time in front of the TV or computer with those who spend very little time. Some previous studies linking TV viewing to obesity compared kids at the extremes of viewing time, a method that might find more significant results than would the more detailed measure.

Guns and Behavior Disorders

Gun Carrying and Conduct Disorder: A Highly Combustible Combination?
Rolf Loeber, Ph.D., Jeffrey Burke, Ph.D., John Mutchka, M.A., and Benjamin Lahey, Ph.D.
Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 158, February 2004, pgs. 138-145
Available free from Loeber at Western Psychiatric Institute, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, 3811 O’Hara St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213, or at

Conduct disorder is a persistent pattern of behavior in which someone violates major age-appropriate social norms and the basic rights of others. Many boys with conduct disorder have problems controlling their impulses. Research has shown that boys with conduct disorder are more likely to use a weapon, but no research has been done to see if they are more likely to carry a concealed gun. That is the purpose of this new study.

The study includes 177 boys ages 7 to 12, all of whom were referred by mental health clinics. They were first assessed in 1987, and they were interviewed annually until they were 19. Half of the boys were from one site in Pennsylvania, and the others were from two sites in Georgia. All the boys lived with at least one biological parent and none had a history of mental retardation or psychosis. Many came from poor families. Seventy percent were white and 30 percent were African American.

At the age of 17, almost one in three (32 percent) were diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, 20 percent with conduct disorder and 18 percent with attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s important to remember that all the boys had been referred by a clinic because of problems at an early age.

Between the ages of 12 and 17, twenty percent had carried a concealed gun at least once. This is not much higher than the 18 percent reported in a more nationally representative sample of boys. The boys started carrying guns as early as age 10, and were more likely to do so as they got older. However, many boys who started carrying guns later stopped; for example, 61 percent had carried a gun for only a year or less.

The boys who carried a concealed gun were four times as likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder and less likely to be diagnosed as overanxious. Carrying a concealed gun was not related to oppositional defiant disorder, depression, separation anxiety or ADHD.

Carrying a concealed gun was more likely among boys who were violent, older or African American, had low socio-economic status or lived in urban areas. Those who were monitored more closely by their parents were less likely to carry a concealed gun.
The number of arrests per participant ranged from 0 to 16, with a mean of 1.6. Nearly half were arrested at least once in adulthood. Those who carried concealed guns as adolescents were more likely to commit crimes as adults.

The findings thus illustrate the many reasons for youth workers to worry about youths carrying concealed guns.

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families. Contact: