June 12, 2007 Researchers trying to understand why high school-age boys are involved in serious delinquency more often than girls have found that males are exposed to higher levels of risk factors and lower amounts of protective factors.
A new study of more than 7,800 high school sophomores from 40 suburban and rural communities in seven states examined 22 risk and protective factors associated with serious delinquency. It found that boys reported higher levels of risk and lower levels of protection for 18 of the factors than did girls. In addition, boys were twice as likely to engage in seven of the eight serious delinquent behaviors that were measured.
"Boys come into contact with risk factors in their families, school, peers and in their personal attributes more frequently and are sometimes influenced by them more strongly than are girls," said Abigail Fagan, lead author of the study and an intervention specialist with the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group.
All of the risk and protective factors examined were significantly related to serious delinquency for both boys and girls, according to Fagan.
The students in the study came from communities with populations ranging from 1,600 to 106,000 in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Slightly more than half of the students were girls, and 79 percent were white.
Data were collected from surveys administered in school, including questions about participation in eight behaviors in the past year that are indicative of serious delinquency -- being arrested, carrying a handgun, bringing a handgun to school, attacking someone with the intent to do harm, stealing a motor vehicle, selling illegal drugs, being suspended or expelled from school, and being drunk or high at school.
Being drunk or high at school was the most common self-reported offense with nearly 20 percent of the girls and 26 percent of the boys reporting such behavior. Attacking someone was the second-most-common behavior, with 11 percent of girls and 21 percent of boys reporting it. However, the overwhelming majority of teenagers said they did not engage in delinquent acts.
The 22 protective factors measured included the teens' attachment to each of their parents, rewards for good behavior in school and social skills in dealing with other people. Risks included family conflict, low commitment to school, peer drug use and sensation seeking.
While boys experience higher levels of risk and lower protection for 18 of these factors, girls only reported higher risk for family conflict and less protection from attachment to their fathers. There were no gender differences for exposure to peer drug use and for peer rewards for delinquency.
"There are no unique risk or protective factors for either sex in this study," said Fagan. "But when teens are exposed to a risk situation it sometimes has a greater impact on boys than girls. One of our questions asked if your friends would think you are cool if you beat up someone else. Although boys and girls reported about the same level of exposure to this situation, it was more likely to be related to boys' involvement in delinquency. Boys and girls can experience situations differently and boys might be more likely than girls to do something delinquent when exposed to risk factors. It's not just coming into contact with bad influences, but how you deal with them."
Fagan added that there are many similarities in what leads boys and girls to engage in delinquency, which a is good reason to include both genders in prevention programs.
"There are many effective programs that lower rates of delinquency and they also reduce drug use. It makes sense to implement these programs to get more bang for our buck because the same risk and protective factors are involved in drug use. However, we do need to develop more programs because there are not a lot of prevention programs directed at high school students."
The paper appears in the June issue of the journal Prevention Science. Co-authors of the study are J. David Hawkins and Michael Arthur of the UW's Social Development Research Group in the School of Social Work and M. Lee Van Horn, a psychologist at the University of South Carolina. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Child Health and Development, National Institute on Mental Health and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention supported the research.
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