VOLUME 31, NUMBER 14 THURSDAY, December 2, 1999

RIA receives federal grant
Researchers to use $2.74 million to study teens' risky behavior

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Reporter Contributor

Adolescents strive to find and define themselves, fit in with their peers, explore their world and have fun. In an effort to do this, some teens engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking, using drugs and having unsafe sex. Parents are concerned when their children take part in such behaviors and want to know how they can identify these behaviors and intervene quickly. With the help of a $2.74 million grant, researchers at UB and the University of Missouri-Columbia are taking steps to find some answers.

Kurt Dermen, a senior scientist in UB's Research Institute on Addictions, and Lynne Cooper, a former member of the UB psychology faculty and now a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, recently received the grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to continue their research on risk-taking behaviors during adolescence and young adulthood.

Dermen and Cooper have been tracking a group of more than 2,000 young people for the past decade to determine what factors contribute to risk-taking and how such behaviors affect their adjustment in life. The grant will fund a third wave of interviews with the study participants.

"We hope to find out where these people are now in their lives, and determine how decisions they made as teen-agers have influenced their life paths," Cooper said. "For example, although many adolescents take risks, most of them change their behavior patterns as they grow older. An important focus of this study will be to identify sub-groups of individuals who do and don't change, and to determine how these sub-groups differ from each other. In this way, we can develop a better understanding of the meaning and function risk-taking serves for adolescents, and when or for whom taking risks is entirely dysfunctional."

Cooper began the study 10 years ago with interviews of 2,052 teenagers living in Buffalo. About five years later, 90 percent of these young people were re-interviewed.

"At the time of the second interview, many of the participants were leaving home for the first time, beginning new relationships and starting to work, " Cooper said. "We looked at their earlier involvement in risky behaviors to determine whether having engaged in these behaviors predicted their current lifestyles. However, because involvement in many of these behaviors continues to increase well into the 20s, it was too soon to tell what the longer-term effects of these experiences would be. So the next wave of interviews will be very important in terms of our ability to look at the longer-term influences of risk-taking on life course and adjustment."

Once the data are collected and analyzed, Dermen and Cooper hope parents and mentors of teenagers will be able to use the research to better understand why their children take risks and how to intervene before these behaviors become life-long patterns.

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