It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your teenager is?
If not, that could be a fairly good indication that he or she may
end up in trouble. It turns out that kids who hang out with friends
unsupervised and who are failing in school are at much higher risk
than their peers.
Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? But for years, researchers
have used race, income, and family structure as shortcuts for
understanding adolescent behavior. While no one ever said it
directly, the implication was always there: If a teen is black,
poor, and from a broken family, he's more likely to end up in
Now, the findings of the largest study ever of American teenagers
have turned that assumption on its head, giving parents and
educators a whole new set of tools to help understand and prevent
dangerous behaviors, from substance abuse to violence to early
In fact, school failure, large amounts of time spent "hanging
out," and friends who engage in risky behavior themselves are three
to eight times more likely to predict trouble for teens than race,
income, and family structure combined, according to the National
Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, released yesterday in
"When we looked at how much knowing someone's family structure or
race or income status tells us about a kid's behavior, the answer
is: not much," says Robert Blum, one of the nation's leading
authorities on adolescent behavior. "But looking at the other
factors, you're able to explain 20, 30, or 40 percent of behavior.
It's just hugely different."
Dr. Blum, the lead researcher on the report, which is known as
the ADD Health study, adds that focusing on race and other
traditional measures can inadvertently mask underlying causes -
like school failure - that can be addressed.
"Oversimplifying also identifies some kids who aren't at risk and
leaves out large numbers of kids who truly are," he says.
Take Brian Lutz. He fits few of the traditional stereotypes about
troubled teens. A football and lacrosse player, he's white, lives in
a leafy, well-tended Long Island suburb, and his parents earn a
good living, although they recently divorced.
Nonetheless, Brian started getting high and drinking regularly in
the seventh grade. He's now spending his senior year in high school
in an intensive drug- and alcohol-treatment program.
But if his parents and teachers had been aware of the findings of
the ADD Health study, Brian's troubles might have been avoided. …