"Brainy" students least likely to engage in risky behaviors while "burnouts" and "non-conformists" are at highest risk

April 09, 2001

New Haven, Conn. - As expected, students who do well in school and enjoy academics are least likely to smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs and have unsafe sex, while those students classified as "burnouts" and "non-conformists" are most likely to indulge in risky behaviors, a study by a Yale professor and collaborators has found.

The researchers also found that teenagers tend to have friends who are like-minded and, when asked to place their friends in a particular category, are invariably correct.

"The findings were not entirely surprising, but they do suggest that we may be able to learn a lot about adolescents' potential for risk-taking behavior simply by knowing their reputation among peers," said Mitchell Prinstein, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University and a collaborator on the project.

The study will be published in the May issue of The Journal of Pediatric Psychology. The lead author is Annette La Greca of the University of Miami. Michael Fetter of Charlotte, N.C., is co-author along with Prinstein.

The researchers interviewed 250, 15-to-19-year-old high school students and identified them as falling into one of six categories: popular, jocks, brains, burnouts, non-conformists or average/other. The students reported on their own health risk behaviors, the health risk behaviors of their friends, the peer crowd affiliation of their closest friends and their perceived social acceptance.

"Burnouts and non-conformists had the highest levels of health risk behaviors across the areas assessed, the greatest proportion of close friends who engaged in similar behaviors, and relatively low social acceptance from peers," the researchers said. "Brains and their friends engaged in extremely low levels of health risk behaviors. Jocks and populars also showed evidence of selected areas of health risk; these teens also were more socially accepted than others. In general, adolescents' closest friends were highly nested within the same peer crowds."

The investigators said more information is needed about adolescents and what leads them to risky behaviors because what they do as teenagers may contribute to adult mortality from conditions such as heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease and HIV infection. The study also showed that the six identified peer groups also tend to cluster with friends of a similar bent.

"These data strongly suggest that health promotion efforts for high risk youth must take into account peer networks and friendships to have much impact on the behavior of these high risk teens," the researchers said. "Educational efforts alone are not likely to affect teens whose best friendships are interwoven with high levels of health risk behaviors."

They said it might be difficult for burnouts or non-conformists to change their peer crowd affiliation. The relatively low social status associated with these high risk peer crowds would make it difficult for such teens to shift affiliation to a higher status crowd.

The researchers said grouping the high risk teenagers together for therapeutic purposes would only encourage their risky behavior.

"Prevention programs should avoid aggregating high risk adolescents into intervention groups," they said. "Deliberate efforts should be taken to ensure that such youth are separated from their friends during prevention programs to minimize the subtle, yet powerful, ways that deviant peers influence each others' behaviors."

The researchers also said that involving the parents of high risk teens in the direct monitoring of their teens' activities may prove beneficial since parental monitoring has been shown to counteract adolescents' associations with deviant peers,"

Yale University

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