COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Parents of teenagers, don't despair. New research suggests that parents continue to influence their adolescents' behavior, even as friends and schools loom larger in teens' eyes.
A study at Ohio State University used a national data set to track 1,725 children for five years, beginning when they were between 11 and 17 years old. The goal was to see how the influence of three important social environments in teens' lives -- family, peers and school -- changed during the course of adolescence. Specifically, the study examined how peers, family and school influenced whether adolescents became involved in delinquency.
The results showed, as expected, that the effect of friends and school grew during early adolescence, peaked in mid-adolescence, and then began to slowly decline. On the other hand, the influence of parents did not show any pattern of change, but remained steady through the teen years.
"People tend to perceive parents as likely losers in the competition with their children's friends over influencing adolescent behavior," said Sung Joon Jang, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State.
"But this study shows parents still have an impact throughout adolescence on whether their children become involved in delinquent behavior."
The study was published in the August 1999 issue of the journal Criminology.
Jang analyzed data from the National Youth Survey, which involved interviews with a group of youth beginning in 1977 and then follow-up interviews for each of the next five years.
"Many studies have looked at the influence of parents, friends and other groups on adolescents, but these studies didn't consider whether the effects varied as children went through adolescence," Jang said. "This study was designed to see how the changes and transitions of adolescence affected parental, peer and school influence."
Jang measured the influence of family over time by examining how close the teens perceived themselves to be to their parents and how often they participated in family activities during each of the five years of the study.
School influence was measured by how much time teens said they spent on homework and studying, their attachment to teachers and school, and academic performance.
Jang examined peer influence by measuring the proportion of the adolescents' "close friends" who were involved in delinquent activities. Respondents who reported more friends involved in delinquency were believed to be socialized to be delinquent and be under more peer pressure to commit delinquent acts themselves.
Jang looked at the influence of these three social environments and how they related to the delinquent acts which the respondents said they committed. The study looked at all delinquent behavior -- from skipping school to acts of violence -- except for drug use. (Jang said developmental patterns of drug use among adolescents are different than those of other delinquent acts, so they were excluded from the analysis. Jang is currently conducting a similar study on adolescent drug use.)
Results showed that the influence of peers on delinquency rose from age 11 until it reached a peak at about age 13 1/2 and then declined through the remainder of adolescence. As expected, those who had more close friends who committed delinquent acts were more likely to be involved in delinquency too.
Although the peak of peer influence is somewhat earlier than might be expected, Jang said it makes sense that friends exert their greatest impact at about age 13 and 14. "That's really the entrance to the teen years, when many adolescents are trying to detach themselves from their parents and become more independent," he said. "That's when peers suddenly have a very significant role for adolescents."
The study found that school influence also increased during early adolescence, reaching a peak at about age 15 1/2 and then declining. Those teens with a greater commitment to education and attachment to teachers and school were less likely to commit delinquent acts.
During all of adolescence, the study found parental influence was steady, neither significantly increasing or declining.
Jang said this study shows middle adolescence to be a critical time during adolescent development, one that parents should be prepared for. "Based on these findings, I would say parents shouldn't give up providing influence and support to their adolescents," Jang said. "Parental attempts to provide support may not always be welcomed by teens. But even when they appear to reject their parents' support, teens seem to still be listening to what their parents say."
The study was supported by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Ohio State.
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