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June 25, 2001

Less parental monitoring can lead to adverse health

By Tia Webster


Teenagers with less parental monitoring exhibit a higher risk for adverse health outcomes such as more sexual risk-taking, participation in antisocial activities, fighting and frequent substance abuse, a study led by a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health concludes. The study focused on black female adolescents living in low-income neighborhoods.

Emory researchers studied the teenagers’ perceptions of their parents’ knowledge about where they were spending their time outside of school and home and whom they were with. The results, published in the June issue of Pediatrics by Ralph DiClemente, professor of behavioral science and health education, indicate that less perceived parental monitoring is associated with high-risk sexual behaviors, the acquisition of sexually transmitted diseases, violence, antisocial behavior and marijuana and alcohol use.

For example, teens whose parents provided less monitoring were twice as likely to have multiple sex partners and a history of arrest, 40 percent more likely to have a history of alcohol use and almost three times more likely to smoke marijuana frequently.

Although the traditional focus on adolescent health risk behaviors has been on personal factors or biological characteristics, according to DiClemente, it is equally important to consider the familial and social contexts that influence teens’ behavior.

“The role of the family is becoming increasingly important,” DiClemente said. “But because today’s working families are more nuclear and less extended, there is less supervision inside and outside the household, creating a window of opportunity for adolescents to become involved in risky activities.”

Prevention research should address the impact of parental monitoring, DiClemente said. “An adolescent’s perception is critical in this case. If a parent can enhance communication with the child and increase the child’s awareness that they know where [they are] and whom they are with, subsequently, a child’s risk behaviors may be reduced.”

The study’s findings also show that few fathers are seen as primary monitors. The vast majority of adolescents perceived their mothers as the parental figures who provided monitoring.
DiClemente suggested family intervention may help reduce teens’ risk behaviors. First, parents should receive guidance on how to balance a teen’s desire for increased autonomy with their own parental obligation to protect their children from harm.

“Parents can do this by instilling their own values into the child and providing constant monitoring of their children’s activities and friends to reinforce their values. The goal, of course, is that eventually the child will self-regulate [his or her] behavior,” DiClemente said.

Secondly, finding other forms of monitoring may benefit adolescents who must be left unsupervised for long periods of time.

“Social service organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, after-school programs and the like, can provide structure for adolescents that reinforce prosocial values and behaviors. These agencies are not intended to take the place of parent responsibility, but rather extend and strengthen it, providing a safety net,” DiClemente said.

Emory members of DiClemente’s multi-institution team included Gina Wingood, assistant professor of behavioral science and health education; Richard Crosby, research fellow in behavioral science and health education; and nursing postdoc fellow Brenda Cobb.


Back to Emory Report June 25, 2001