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Northeastern Study Results Challenge Outcome of Traditional Gender-Specific Activities on Risky Behavior in Teens

March 24, 2008 – Previous research has shown that participating in extracurricular activities protects young men and women from risky behaviors and delinquency. This theory was confirmed in a recent study from researchers at Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, but the results also offered a different perspective on how the same activities affect young men and women differently. These, and other results, were published in a recent issue of Crime & Delinquency.

While it was previously believed that participation in sports would decrease delinquency in boys, it actually did not have a significant protective effect. However, the reverse was true for girls, whose risk for delinquent behavior was reduced significantly if they took part in sports. Other activities, such as church and after-school community activities, decreased the risk of delinquency in boys, but not for girls.

“This study set out to identify the factors that lead young men and women to fall into serious delinquency and risky behaviors,” said Sean Varano, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern. “We know that girls and boys have a number of different experiences as they mature, and it is important to understand those differences so that informed decisions can be made on how to protect them.”

The study, completed by Sean Varano, Ph.D., Amy Farrell, Ph.D., both from Northeastern, and Jeb Booth, Ph.D., formerly of Northeastern, examined the self-reported data from 1,400 teens from an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. By looking at both young men and women independently of one another, examining the social controls (parental, academic, etc.) and bonds developed inside the home, in the classroom and during extracurricular activities, it has become clear that they respond differently to certain social controls and activities.

Involvement in church and nonschool activities, for both young men and women, significantly protected them from serious delinquent behavior, which includes fighting, carrying a weapon or violence. However, it did not protect them from risky behavior, such as drinking, smoking or drunk driving.

The researchers also found that how students feel about their school environment also impact their risk of delinquent and risky behavior. Students who view their academic environment as positive are less like to be involved in serious delinquency or risky behavior. The converse is also true – when students feel negatively about their school, they are more likely to exhibit negative behavior. “The fact that this idea was confirmed by our research shows that positive and negative school environments are important for both urban and suburban schools,” said Amy Farrell, Principal Research Scientist and Associate Director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern.

This study also indicated that a “tipping point” may exist, a point at which too much involvement in extracurricular activities could actually increase levels of risky behavior and serious delinquency. What this may suggest is that the lack of time spent with parents and family might intensify the negative peer influences that the students are exposed to.

“The data clearly shows the need for a balance in students’ lives to best protect them from serious delinquency and risky behaviors,” added Varano. “With continued gender-specific research, better programs can be implemented with the goal of improving the school environment and reducing the incidence of risky behavior and delinquency for all students.”

For more information about Professors Varano and Farrell, and their research, please contact Jenny Eriksen at (617) 373-2802 or via email at

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please

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