A study in Chicago found that some teens were more likely to delay having sex if they lived in neighborhoods where the adults kept a close eye on area children.
The teens who benefited from living in these close-knit neighborhoods were those who had the least parental supervision, such as might occur when both parents work outside the home.
The results show another reason why neighborhoods are important in the lives of residents, said Christopher Browning, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
"Teens may benefit when they live in neighborhoods where adults take responsibility for socializing kids, even those they may not know personally," Browning said. "These are the neighborhoods where residents share the same values and norms, and try to pass them along to youth."
While previous research has shown that good neighbor relations help prevent crime, Browning said this is the first study to show how how these strong relationships among neighbors may affect teenage sexual behavior.
"Crime tends to happen in public spaces, but this is different. Sexual behavior happens in private spaces, in people's homes, so it may not be as easy to regulate as crime. But in some neighborhoods, adults are making sure kids aren't unsupervised in empty homes after school."
Browning conducted the study with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn from Columbia University and Tama Leventhal from John Hopkins University. The study appears in the current issue of the American Sociological Review.
The data came from a larger project called the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which is designed to examine the role of neighborhoods in the lives of children.
The study included residents of 80 neighborhoods. In 1994-95, researchers interviewed people in each of the neighborhoods to calculate what they call "neighborhood collective efficacy." This is a measure of how close-knit each of these communities were. Among other things, residents were asked to rate how much people trusted their neighbors, and whether adults in the neighborhood could be counted on to watch out for children.
In 1995-96, 431 boys and 476 girls aged 11 to 16 and their caregivers, all from these 80 neighborhoods, were interviewed about a wide variety of issues, including early sexual experiences of the youths.
The results showed that the type of neighborhood didn't have any effect on the age of first intercourse for teens whose parents reported they kept a close eye on where their children were at all times.
But for teens who weren't as closely supervised, they were less likely to have intercourse at an early age if they lived in one of the close-knit neighborhoods where adults kept an eye out on local kids.
"When both parents are working, or children are being raised by a single parent, supervision may be more difficult. In these circumstances, it helps to live in a neighborhood where there are other adults who share the same values and who will help supervise teens," Browning said.
The results don't mean it is best if parents are constantly watching over teens, he said. Teens need to learn how to use their independence and it doesn't help them develop if parents are overprotective.
"But you need to know what kind of community you live in," Browning added. "If you live in the right kind of neighborhood and you give your teens some independence, they have the opportunity to see other adults who reinforce your norms and values. That's going to be beneficial in the long run."
Results showed that youth from high-poverty neighborhoods were more likely than those from other areas to have sex earlier. However, the effect of good neighbor relations was nearly as strong as the effect of living in a poor neighborhood, Browning said. "Poverty isn't the whole story."
The results also showed that parental monitoring had more effect on the behavior of girls than it did on boys.
"Boys at this age tend to take part in more risky behavior," he said. "The parents' capacity to control boys' behavior through monitoring is more limited, but strong neighborhoods where parents jointly supervise local teens can have an impact on boys' behavior."
Browning said the findings suggest anything that can be done to promote good neighbor relations will have positive impacts on families. Formal and informal neighborhood groups such as block watches and community organizations may have benefits beyond the specific issues they consider.
"Building strong communities will help in many ways, including preventing risky early sexual behavior among adolescents."
The study was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Contact: Christopher Browning, (614) 292-2983; Browning.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.email@example.com