- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

School problems and "hanging out" with the wrong friends are top predictors for teen involvement in smoking, drinking, violence and sex, said a report released yesterday.

The findings are a "911 call" about the importance of school and parental oversight of children, said Dr. Robert W. Blum, who laid out the latest findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as "Add Health."

The study appeared to contradict views that say being poor, being a minority or coming from a single-parent family predisposes children to a difficult adolescence.

Race, income or family structure "may influence behaviors," but they are not the root causes of risky behavior, said Dr. Blum, director of the University of Minnesota's adolescent health program.

Instead, he said, teens' "immediate environment" their school life, peer group and factors such as easy access to guns in the home play a much larger role in whether they get into anti-social activities.

Surgeon General David Satcher, who addressed the press conference by videotape, said that the study "shows that if we really want to help American teens, we can't put them in neat little boxes based on whether they're black or white, rich or poor, or from a one- or two-parent family."

"Violence, drinking, suicide and other dangerous behaviors are not solely the problems of minority and low-income teens," said Dr. Satcher.

"These problems are everyone's problems," he added, urging parents to monitor their teens, help them in school and make sure they are in supervised after-school programs, sports, school clubs and community-service activities.

Patrick Fagan, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation who has written about the importance of two-parent married families, said the Add Health survey, as published in next month's American Journal of Public Health, clearly shows that teens in two-parent homes are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors than children of single parents.

It's the parents' love and connectedness to their children that matters most, though, Mr. Fagan added. "Steering children to good peers, doing good things that's the result of a huge amount of parental effort."

Add Health is the nation's first study on what influences teens to reject or become involved with tobacco, alcohol, suicide, weapon-related violence and sexual intercourse.

Yesterday's report was based on a second round of interviews with 20,000 students in grades seven through 12, and 18,000 parents.

The survey found that most teens avoided risky behaviors 55 percent didn't smoke, 53 percent didn't use alcohol, 87 percent didn't have suicidal thoughts or acts, 74 percent weren't involved in weapons-related violence, and 84 percent of young teens avoided sexual intercourse.

Sexual activity increased with age, though, with only 40 percent of 11th and 12th graders still virgins.

Dr. Blum said that the teens' race, income and family structure played only a "tiny" role in whether teens did these things. Instead, failing in school and spending at least five days a week "hanging out" with friends who smoked, drank, had sex or carried weapons were major predictors for teens to do the same, he said.

Looking at factors that protected teens, the researchers found that having a positive relationship with the family was most powerful, followed by such things as a desire to go to college and frequent religious activity.

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