Direct, Mediated, Moderated, and Cumulative Relations between Neighborhood Characteristics and Adolescent Outcomes

Article excerpt

Although it is widely accepted that child development is shaped by many factors (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), relatively little research has explored the ways in which forces outside of adolescents' immediate environments influence their well-being. One important potential determinant of child outcomes that only recently has been the subject of study is the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods, characterized by differing levels of economic advantage, opportunity, resources, social cohesion, and safety, have a dramatically wide range of effects on adolescents' lives (Pinderhughes, Nix, Foster, Jones, & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2001; Sampson, 2001). However, the precise mechanism of this influence remains less than clear (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). In this study, we investigated how and when neighborhoods relate to adolescents' psychological adjustment and problems at school. In addition to verifying the direct association between these constructs, we explored mediated, moderated, and cumulative relations among neighborhood characteristics, parenting behaviors, peer characteristics, and adolescent outcomes.

Direct Relations Between Neighborhoods and Adolescent Outcomes

Neighborhood characteristics can directly influence adolescent development in different ways (Jencks & Mayer, 1990; Wilson, 1987). For instance, neighborhoods differ in terms of the availability of well-equipped schools and community services that promote child development. Similarly, neighborhoods vary in terms of the presence of residents who serve as role models and collectively socialize and monitor the children in their communities. Furthermore, neighborhood conditions, such as the amount of institutional resources and job opportunities, may influence residents' attitudes and behaviors as well as child outcomes. Adolescents living in neighborhoods in which most residents are poor, have little education, and have difficulty obtaining jobs may adopt the view that they have little control over their lives and a poor chance of success (cf. Wilson, 1991).

Researchers have documented direct relations between neighborhood characteristics and adolescents' academic success that persist after controlling for family socioeconomic status (SES). For instance, neighborhood SES has been associated with adolescents' performance on standardized tests (Halpern-Felsher et al., 1997), school grades (Dornbusch, Ritter, & Steinberg, 1991), and high school graduation rates (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov, & Sealand, 1993; Duncan, 1994). In addition, neighborhood qualities are directly associated with adolescents' behavioral and emotional adjustment. Neighborhood SES and community disadvantage have been related to adolescent aggression and conduct disorder (Aneshensel & Sucoff, 1996) as well as delinquent and risky behaviors (Kalil & Eccles, 1998).

Indirect Relations Between Neighborhoods and Adolescent Outcomes

Alternatively, neighborhood dimensions may be conceptualized as distal variables that act through more immediate and proximal forces in adolescents' everyday lives (Baldwin, Baldwin, & Cole, 1990). The argument for such indirect relations is supported by ecological theory, which asserts that child development is shaped by different levels of environmental influence (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). These environmental forces include microsystemic factors, or the moment-by-moment interactions that children and adolescents experience with significant people in their lives (e.g., parents, friends, and teachers). Ecological theory also suggests that child development is affected by more overarching exosystemic and macrosystemic factors, such as parental employment or neighborhood SES. These different ecological systems each contribute to child development; they are also interrelated and affect each other in a reciprocal and dynamic manner.

In terms germane to the present investigation, ecological theory suggests that neighborhood characteristics will have direct and unique relations with adolescent outcomes when more proximal factors are considered. …