Academic journal article International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health

Assessing Adolescent Contexts: Measures of Families, Peers, Schools and Neighborhoods

Academic journal article International Journal of Child and Adolescent Health

Assessing Adolescent Contexts: Measures of Families, Peers, Schools and Neighborhoods

Article excerpt


Advancements in developmental research require reliable and valid assessment of contexts. During adolescence, the assessment of contexts expands due to developmental and socialization changes that broaden the social milieu. Family contexts persist as important influences during adolescence, but peer relations, school experiences, and other contexts play increasingly influential roles in the lives of adolescents (1). Along with the breadth of the social ecology, societal implications heighten the need to examine adolescent contexts as development patterns during adolescence have evidenced continuity into young adulthood (2). Producing reliable measures of adolescents' social ecology holds promise for advancing developmental understanding and fostering positive outcomes. Comprehensive assessment during adolescence necessitates reliable and valid assessment of multiple developmental contexts.

Assessing multiple dimensions: Adolescent contexts

In industrialized societies, four primary developmental contexts are nearly universal for adolescents: families, peers, schools, and neighborhood. Such contexts have been characterized as the most consistent, pervasive, and salient dimensions of the adolescent social environment (3,4). Ecological theory further supports the salience of these broad settings as the location of key relationship processes during development (5).

In addition to the direct role, contexts have important moderating roles in adolescent development. For example, prior research has documented the way that the peer context moderates the effects of hostile family interactions on adolescent aggression (6). Prior observers have stressed the need for extending this kind of research that examines the interplay across contexts (7). The moderating role of context also has implications for translational findings in promoting effective, tailored interventions (8). Such premises have led to advancing theory models that require assessment of multiple-context influences (9). Because multi-context research has been hampered by measurement limitations (10), multimeasure, multi-context assessments are needed to advance the next phase of adolescent research that increasingly explores the dynamic interplay among contexts in adolescent development.

Multi-item measures of adolescent contexts

Developing robust measures of the adolescent social ecology requires multi-item assessment. Research has documented the validity advantages of multi-item measurement over single item measures in accurately capturing the underlying construct (11). In addition to construct validity, multi-item measures also produce more stable indexes than single item measures due to increased discrimination and reduced error (12). Multi-item measures also enable assessment of degree of homogeneity across items, or internal consistency (13). For these reasons, multi-item scales hold particular value in assessing the complex contextual variables during adolescence.

Reliability and validity

Internal consistency in multi-item measures provides an essential indicator of reliability. Cronbach's alpha (α), the most common statistic for internal consistency, derives from the premise of repeated split-half estimation such that sufficient inter-item correlations result in an alpha coefficient (13). The common standard for research use is an alpha coefficient of .70 or above (12). Adding items to a scale while retaining similar inter-item correlations results in a lower item-to-scale variance ratio and a higher alpha coefficient. At a point of diminishing returns, however, increasing the number of items on one scale decreases the number of measures that can be administered in a similar time frame. This tradeoff implies an optimal goal of parsimonious item use to yield multiple, technically adequate measures. Maximizing the potential of individual items provides efficiencies in research assessment, which reduce research costs and enable more comprehensive assessment. …

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