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Research on siblings conducted by Susan Averett, professor and head of economics and business, has provided breakthroughs on the understanding of adolescent behavior.

She presented her research at the 60th International Atlantic Economic Society Conference in New York City Oct. 6-9, and the work is set for publication in the academic journal Economic Inquiry.

Along with Laura M. Argys and Daniel I. Rees, both of University of Colorado at Denver, Averett conducted the study through a grant from the National Institutes of Health. She finished her research last year while on sabbatical in Paris, France.

The study could impact the heated debate surrounding the welfare system. Many wish to overhaul it to provide less compensation to families with more children, but Averett’s research shows that these proposals lack solid statistical support.

“Prior to receiving the grant, we published several papers together that looked at risky behavior with respect to adolescents,” she says. “But one of the things we hadn’t done was look at how peer groups influence adolescents. We knew they had an influence, so we started to think about how we could look at peer groups.”

A common dilemma in the study of risky behavior in adolescents is determining whether peers encourage risky behavior or join in when an adolescent already engages in unsafe activities.

“We needed to come up with a measure of a peer group that is, in some sense, a control group,” Averett explains.

The researchers decided that the best control group is older siblings because, as Averett notes, an adolescent cannot choose siblings.

“We found a very strong, consistent peer effect that if you have an older sibling, you are more likely to have their bad behaviors – smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, engaging in sexual activities,” she explains. “If you have an older sibling, you are more likely to be aware of those risky activities. Older siblings might get you acting in those ways because, for instance, they can buy you cigarettes. Or, younger siblings could be copying their older siblings, but either way, it’s a peer effect.”

Of course, parents also play a role in adolescent behavior.

“It could be that parents don’t supervise the later-born siblings as much,” she says. “If the older brother is home after school, he can watch his younger siblings, so supervision plays a role. We also looked at various measures of parental supervision – maybe mom is home, but she doesn’t mind if her daughter’s in the basement with her boyfriend. We found that parental supervision was important, particularly after school. Having a parent home reduces the probability of adolescents engaging in risky behavior, although it doesn’t change the peer effect from older siblings.”

The team also researched whether older siblings had a positive influence on younger adolescents.

“We looked at 22 positive things – from siblings belonging to the yearbook staff to the swim team – and there were no discernable patterns,” Averett says. “So older siblings definitely impact negatively, but we don’t have an equally clear picture on the other side.”

While Averett gained insight into her own family, the research serves a larger purpose.

“In the bigger picture, when you look at why adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, it could help shape the discussion of welfare reform,” she says. “There is this idea that welfare mothers should receive fewer benefits when they have more kids because it’s money that will be wasted on those behaviors. But it’s largely an area where some policymakers have appeared to have made up their minds with little evidence to support [their ideas].

“We want to see if there is truly a correlation between the influences or if it’s a toggle-think,” she continues. “That is, because you are a risk taker, you are going to smoke marijuana and get pregnant anyway.”

Averett, who often includes students in her research, has been honored with nine awards for her teaching excellence; she was the inaugural recipient of the James E. Lennertz Prize for Exceptional Teaching and Mentoring. She is coauthor of the textbook Women and the Economy: Family, Work, and Pay, is the author or coauthor of 19 journal articles, and has made 26 conference presentations. She is a member of American Economic Association, Population Association of America, and Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. She earned her doctorate in economics from University of Colorado.

Categorized in: Academic News