The Influence of Social Settings on Youth Development

The study panel that produced the 1993 National Research Council (NRC) report Losing Generations concluded that communities and institutions that surround adolescents, which include families, neighborhoods, schools, health systems, and employment and training centers, are increasingly challenged by changing social and economic conditions within the larger society (National Research Council, 1993). These conditions include the decline in economic security for poor and middle-class families, the increase in the number of single-parent households, and the rise in the number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty that are spatially and socially isolated from middle-and working-class areas. Such trends place enormous stresses on public and private institutions and resources at a time when large numbers of children are entering adolescence. Over the past two decades, as the major settings of adolescent life have become increasingly beleaguered, the NRC panel observed that "increasing numbers of youths are falling into the juvenile justice system, the child welfare system, and other even more problematic settings" (National Research Council, 1993:2).

But understanding and demonstrating the impact of social settings on youth development are difficult tasks that require theory-building and instrumentation. Jencks and Mayer (1990) noted that a long-term commitment would be required from both the research and program-funding communities to understand the role and processes by which social settings influence adolescent behavior. Although theoretical work has begun to classify the potential mechanisms by which neighborhoods may influence the development of youth, empirical results that can document the impact of community influences remain limited.

In the report Losing Generations, the panel observed that efforts to improve



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--> The Influence of Social Settings on Youth Development The study panel that produced the 1993 National Research Council (NRC) report Losing Generations concluded that communities and institutions that surround adolescents, which include families, neighborhoods, schools, health systems, and employment and training centers, are increasingly challenged by changing social and economic conditions within the larger society (National Research Council, 1993). These conditions include the decline in economic security for poor and middle-class families, the increase in the number of single-parent households, and the rise in the number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty that are spatially and socially isolated from middle-and working-class areas. Such trends place enormous stresses on public and private institutions and resources at a time when large numbers of children are entering adolescence. Over the past two decades, as the major settings of adolescent life have become increasingly beleaguered, the NRC panel observed that "increasing numbers of youths are falling into the juvenile justice system, the child welfare system, and other even more problematic settings" (National Research Council, 1993:2). But understanding and demonstrating the impact of social settings on youth development are difficult tasks that require theory-building and instrumentation. Jencks and Mayer (1990) noted that a long-term commitment would be required from both the research and program-funding communities to understand the role and processes by which social settings influence adolescent behavior. Although theoretical work has begun to classify the potential mechanisms by which neighborhoods may influence the development of youth, empirical results that can document the impact of community influences remain limited. In the report Losing Generations, the panel observed that efforts to improve

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--> Figure 1 Components of conceptual framework. SOURCE: Connell et al. (1995). Reprinted by permission. the social settings of adolescents should strive to enable parents and community residents to increase their abilities to nurture young people. "Whether programs are offered in a single site or through interagency collaborations, their goal is to provide services that ensure that the emotional, recreational, academic, mental and physical health, and vocational needs of adolescents are explicitly addressed" (National Research Council, 1993:11). This conclusion was reinforced in the January 1996 workshop, which emphasized the need to improve connections between research and practice during periods of emerging research and programmatic experimentation. Traditional disciplinary studies in sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and education, among other fields, are converging in the development of new theories that examine the characteristics of communities (opportunity structure, resources, social capital, change, and stability) that foster positive and negative developments for adolescents. Recognizing the dynamic, interactive, and multicontextual nature of youth experiences, workshop participants commented that the new conceptual frameworks emphasize the need for multiple lines of inquiry in this field and multiple levels of analysis (see Figure 1 for one example of a multilevel interactive framework presented in the workshop). They also identified several themes associated with this area of scholarship.

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--> Differences in Developmental Pathways One research study on youth has identified three key developmental tasks that characterize the period between early and late adolescence, ages 12 to 19 (Connell et al., 1995): learning to be productive, learning to connect, and learning to navigate. The participants indicated that, although these three tasks may be central to successful adolescent development, variations in experience and circumstances can influence their timing, sequencing, and relative importance at any given time. Participants observed that prevailing views of adolescent development and conceptual frameworks derived from white, middle-class adolescent populations may not reflect the experiences or unique challenges that confront youth who are influenced by other cultural traditions or by disadvantaged conditions. Recent ethnographic research has alerted social scientists to the possibility that traditional theories of normative development do not necessarily provide the appropriate conceptual frameworks for studying the lives of inner-city teens. In a study of African American adolescents, for example, Burton et al. (1996) concluded that the developmental paths of those who grow up in poor, high-risk neighborhoods are based on ideologies, role expectations, behavioral practices, and rites of passage that provide a social context that differs from that commonly reported in studies of white suburban middle-class teens. Several workshop participants mentioned other ethnographic research that suggests that inner-city, economically disadvantaged African American teenagers often experience an accelerated life course and are expected to become primary caretakers of siblings and younger relatives, adopt certain entrepreneurial skills to survive in their environments, and, in general, move quickly from childhood to adulthood. Many adolescents, in these environments, may neither experience nor perceive themselves to be within the transitional stage of adolescence. According to this line of research, adolescents who are compelled by economic or social circumstances to take on adult responsibilities in the area of family support, parenting, and child supervision may mature in ways that are quite different from other youth, but the developmental consequences of an accelerated life course are not yet known. The influence of ethnicity or race has been described primarily as a significant factor within the social context of African American teenagers, but it is also emerging in studies of other ethnic adolescents, including Hispanics and Asian American families. The Impact of Settings on Role Expectations The strength and quality of social networks in economically advantaged or disadvantaged neighborhoods may affect the types of adult interactions that youth experience, which can influence their choice of role models and life course options. In some settings, schools, clubs, churches, sports teams, and other commu-

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--> nity groups recognize adolescence as a distinct, formative stage, and adults within these settings seek to prepare teenagers for adulthood. They consistently remind adolescents that although they are no longer children, they are not quite adults. Recognizing the importance of social supports for the accomplishment of key developmental tasks, several youth programs have sought to establish and enhance connective and supportive relationships between teenagers and adult mentors within disadvantaged communities. Workshop participants noted that evaluations of these programs have shown mixed results in areas such as academic performance, peer and family relationships, and illegal drug and alcohol use. As a result, uncertainty remains as to whether a developmental approach that stresses the importance of adult support and guidance during critical transition periods has the power to influence youth perceptions of life goals, decision-making skills, and outcomes. Social settings that consistently provide negative messages about adolescent abilities and a limited range of desirable life options are thought to lead youth to make poor choices regarding the use of their time and resources. Several youth service programs are designed to move youth away from oppositional or alienated lifestyles and into support systems that can train and educate them to successfully be a part of mainstream society. But the research community needs to improve its ability to measure and assess the contributions of mentorship and other youth-development strategies, especially in circumstances in which mentorship programs must counter negative messages from other authority figures in the youth's social environment. Family management practices and strategies to cope with risk may also be influenced by contextual variations regarding the extent and pervasiveness of crime or violence within communities. Caregivers may emphasize the importance of physical protection and security for children in dangerous neighborhoods (including restriction of the child's movements, strict curfews, and limited travel) and may choose to minimize strategies that foster individual autonomy and self-development for adolescents. The consequences of caregiving strategies associated with social settings can be profound: strategies that foster autonomy often encourage youth to move away from familiar environments and into new but unfamiliar social settings that can offer significant opportunities for growth. Patterns of residential transience, often generated by poverty, represent another example of neighborhood factors that can influence youth development. Frequent household moves, disruptions in daily routines caused by unrelated individuals entering or departing the household, and mobility among neighbors can undermine community ties, weaken support networks, and reduce privacy. However, such transience does not inevitably disrupt development if adolescents have opportunities to sustain relationships with trusted adults.

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--> Social Mediators Research on social settings has called attention to the role of unrelated adults who come into contact with youth in neighborhood and other social settings. Such individuals include teachers, mentors, coaches, employers, religious leaders, service providers, shop owners, and community leaders who may influence youth perceptions and behavior in their everyday settings. Researchers are exploring how the absence or presence of these individuals affect youth's perceptions of their own potential contributions and life options. Scholarship in this field has included both quantitative and qualitative studies; ethnographic studies in particular have described ways in which youth in inner-city communities interact with unrelated adults. Workshop participants observed that a missing factor in the lives of youth in disadvantaged communities, especially in poor African American neighborhoods, is exposure to successful, upwardly mobile, mid-life adults (in the 30-to 50-year-old age range). Adults who become successful often move out of disadvantaged areas to higher-scale urban or suburban communities. Lacking this exposure, youth in at-risk neighborhoods may have limited opportunities to learn about strategies that involve family financial planning, balancing work and child care responsibilities, and the identification of educational and career opportunities across the life span. Workshop participants indicated that the movement of many middle-and upper-class individuals out of poor communities, along with the loss of many minority males because of early death or incarceration, has diminished the network of human resources within the community and reduced the opportunity for youth to interact with adults who can offer advice, support, perspective, and experience in negotiating school-to-work transitions, the initiation of sexual relations, and other key challenges during adolescence. Furthermore, the absence of employment settings, middle-class services (such as banks and supermarkets), and social investments in areas of concentrated poverty, combined with the presence of illicit markets and exposure to the social organization of illegitimate activities, can exacerbate the isolation of youth from socializing influences designed to generate adherence to positive social norms. Community Context Neighborhood characteristics are increasingly viewed as part of the broader range of influences that can affect adolescents, although the magnitude of their impact is uncertain and difficult to measure. Characteristics that may influence youth development include (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1995, 1992; Connell et al., 1995; National Research Council, 1993; and Wilson, 1991): the decline in economic security (including decreasing real earnings and rising levels of unemployment), especially for young adults;

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--> the increase in single-parent, usually female-headed, families; the relation of male joblessness to social disorganization and rational planning for families and youth; easy access to illegal drugs and guns; rising rates of youth crime and juvenile detention; and the role of illegal or underground economies in providing for basic goods and services. These contextual factors contribute to the absence of adult supervision and monitoring, a dearth of safe places to gather, the absence of constructive activities during idle periods, increased exposure to law enforcement and prison settings, and diminished opportunities for interaction between disadvantaged youth and middle- or upper-class professionals who can provide positive role models and institutional resources. Variations in the community perceptions of contextual factors can be significantly influenced by the misuse of power and the effects of corruption within agencies or individuals who are supposed to be trusted. These variations are factors that can foster alienation, contempt, and an oppositional culture among young people, especially those who have limited contact with mainstream organizations and groups or who experience such contacts generally in a punitive fashion. The participants observed that these dynamics can directly affect adolescents' views of their own identity and the opportunities available to them, leading to growing isolation. The relationship between the "new" members of the community and the "old" residents can be positively or negatively influenced by perceptions of how each group relates to the neighborhood. For example, although tax and other financial incentives may attract middle-income families to purchase residences in areas characterized by poverty and transience, the housing authority, the school board, and county, municipal, and state governments may all have conflicting goals with respect to neighborhood initiatives. Middle-class families who have roots in a disadvantaged community and who are returning to improve the property and renew their roots may be welcomed. Such families may be resented, however, if they are seen as gentrifying invaders who bear few loyalties to the community or its residents. Social and economic policies that foster commitment to community empowerment and neighborhood diversity can facilitate neighborhood improvement, but participants observed that variation in community development policies (such as mixed-income housing) is almost never considered in examining the implications of changing social and economic contexts on youth development. What is not known at present are the conditions under which social setting factors override other influences in a youth's environment, such as individual characteristics, child-parent relationships, and family functioning. The interactions that cause people to select the neighborhoods in which they reside need to be studied in comparison with interactions that are generated by the neighborhood itself. The

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--> variation that exists within neighborhoods may also reflect larger political and economic forces resulting from municipal, state, and national policies that shape neighborhood cultures. Because of this variation, participants observed that lessons learned in dealing with positive or negative influences within one neighborhood may not be transferable to all others. Police patrols within disadvantaged communities may be regarded as assets or threats, for example, depending on the level of trust and confidence in law enforcement systems within the community. School systems may be regarded as negative factors if buildings are deteriorating and the quality of instruction is poor, or they may be seen as vital parts of the community if they provide important links to necessary services (such as health care and community resources).