Academic journal article Journal of School Health

School-Level Application of a Social Bonding Model to Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior

Academic journal article Journal of School Health

School-Level Application of a Social Bonding Model to Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior

Article excerpt

Among adolescents, behaviors such as substance use and unprotected sexual activity increase their risk for accidents, sexually transmitted diseases, other chronic diseases, and diminished academic performance.[1,2] While socio-environmental and psychological factors influence adolescent risk-taking behavior,[3-6] few studies tested the ability of both individual- and environmental-level variables to predict adolescent risk-taking behavior. This paper proposes a social bonding heuristic model that includes school-environment indicators to predict involvement in risk-taking behaviors among adolescents.


Models derived from social control theory[7-9] posit that weak "bonds" to family, school, and conventional social activities free the adolescent from the prescriptive norms that discourage risk-taking behavior. Key elements of social bondings[9] include: attachment, the quality of affective relationships that the adolescent has with family and friends; commitment, the degree to which adolescents' aspire to pro-social goals; and involvement, the degree to which the adolescent is integrated in conventional social activities. Self-esteem mediates the influence of bonding on risk-taking behavior. Bonding increases the adolescent's self-esteem and in turn, decreases the likelihood of engaging in, risk-taking behavior.

Consistent findings that social bonding decreases the likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behavior[10,11] attest to the utility of the model for understanding adolescent problem behaviors. Moreover, social bonding based interventions have been effective in reducing social alienation and risk-taking behavior among youth.[12,14] However, the inconsistent and often short-term success of these interventions[15,16] suggest these interventions and perhaps, the conceptual model, may benefit from further refinement.

What remains unexplored is the extent to which availability of bonding opportunities in the school environment may affect an individual's social bonding and risk-taking behavior. Hawkins and others[3,5,17,18] suggest that social opportunities for students to feel a sense of belonging and to participate in their social environment operate as protective factors by buffering stress, enhancing social integration and in turn, decreasing adolescents' risk-taking behavior. However, no empirical evidence confirms that social opportunities available in the school environment increase the likelihood of social bonding or decrease the prevalence of risk-taking behavior among adolescents.

Several studies[9,20,21] provide evidence that adolescent's subjective perceptions of prosocial opportunities available in the social environment are associated with increased social bonding. Whether these subjective perceptions reflect the "real" opportunity structure of prosocial alternatives to risk-taking behavior is unclear. These individual-level associations may simply indicate that those who are most socially integrated see more prosocial opportunities and those who are least integrated see fewer opportunities. Murray and colleagues[22] looked at objective indicators of school climate as predictors of smoking among adolescents. Their results suggest that aggregate indicators such as the proportion of students who are female and the smoking habits of school faculty influence rates of adolescent smoking. However, this study did not include measures of prosocial opportunities available in the school.

Figure 1 provides an overview of the heuristic model of the influence of the bonding environment on ninth grade students' social bonding and risk-taking behavior that was tested in a sample of 20 schools. In the model depicted, aggregate levels of attachment, commitment, and involvement of 12th grade students served as an indicator of the availability of bonding opportunities in the school environment. Twelfth grade students have had full advantage of the opportunities available in the school. …

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