COLUMBUS, Ohio - High levels of church attendance in the ninth grade may protect some African-American teenagers from getting involved in risky behaviors throughout the rest of their high school career, a new study suggests.
After talking with some 700 African-American teens every year for four years, the researchers found that more religious activity in the ninth grade predicted smaller increases in marijuana use among boys and cigarette use among girls.
The study also found that, during high school, larger decreases in religious activity, such as attending church services, were significantly associated with greater increases in alcohol use among boys and sexual intercourse among girls.
"Sex and alcohol use are often emphatically forbidden by denominations common to African-American communities," said Kenneth Steinman, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State University.
"Consistent with previous research, we found that religious activity is associated with less sexual behavior and less substance abuse among teens," he said. The study, however, improved on earlier work by following adolescents over time and testing if less religious activity led to an increase in risk behaviors, or if the reverse were true - that engaging in these behaviors led to a decline in church participation.
Results showed that the level of church participation predicted involvement in risk behavior, and not vice versa.
Steinman conducted the study with Marc Zimmerman, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan. Their work appears in a recent issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology.
The study included 705 African-American high school students from four public high schools in Flint, Mich. These students were part of a larger study of children at risk for dropping out of school. The researchers did "one-on-one" interviews with each student at their respective schools every year.
During each interview, students answered questions about their church attendance as well as if and how often they had had sexual intercourse or used alcohol during the previous month, and if or how often they had used marijuana or smoked cigarettes during the previous year.
Steinman noted that, overall, between ninth and twelfth grades, weekly church attendance decreased from 46 to 33 percent in this group while involvement in risky behavior increased.
"Decreased interest in church is common during adolescence, as each teen tries to establish his or her own identity," he said. How teens expressed their search for autonomy varied by gender: Girls who stayed active in church were less likely to have sex, while boys were less likely to drink alcohol.
Yet for some risky behaviors, religious activity may have a lasting effect, even among teens who do not stay active. Regardless of their later participation, girls who were religiously active in the ninth grade smoked fewer cigarettes throughout high school, while boys used less marijuana.
"These gender differences suggest that a church's efforts to keep teens connected with religious activity may have different effects on boys and girls, as well as on different risk behaviors," Steinman said.
He recently received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work with African-American churches in Columbus to study the potential and limitations of faith-based approaches to sexual health promotion.
"We want to know how religious activity protects American youth from these risky behaviors," he said.
This research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.