UW Today

This is an archived article.

May 4, 2006

Multiracial teens more prone to problem behaviors, study says

Multiracial adolescents in middle school are significantly more likely to engage in such problem behaviors as violence and substance use than single-race young people, according to a new study.

Researchers from the UW and the University of Chicago also found that perceived racial discrimination in school and in home neighborhoods puts adolescents at risk for these problems. However, the study suggests that a strong, positive ethnic identity can shield some multiracial youth from behavior problems. The study was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Among the results, the study found that multiracial adolescents were significantly more likely than white, black or Asian-American youth to have smoked cigarettes. The odds were 38 percent less for whites, 32 percent less for blacks and 51 percent less for Asian-Americans. Similarly, whites, blacks and Asian-Americans were 45, 30 and 65 percent less likely, respectively, to have ever consumed alcohol than multiracial youngsters.

Multiracial youngsters also were significantly more likely to have used marijuana and to have become drunk or high on drugs than white or Asian-Americans. There was little difference in these behaviors between multiracial and black youth.

When it came to violent behaviors such as carrying a weapon, being in a fight and threatening to stab someone, multiracial youth again were significantly more likely to report having engaged in these activities than were whites or Asian-Americans. Fewer differences were found between multiracial and black youths, although the multiracial adolescents reported significantly higher rates of hurting someone badly in a fight (39 percent) and having carried a gun (46 percent).

Overall, multiracial youth also reported a significantly higher mean frequency of engaging in violent behavior compared to each of the three single-race groups. All of these findings were adjusted for age, gender and socioeconomic status.

“Adolescence is a difficult period for all children because two things are usually happening,” said Richard Catalano, director of the UW’s Social Development Research Group in the School of Social Work and a co-author of the study. “Parents are giving children more independence and they are moving from elementary to middle school where they are meeting new kids every 50 minutes.

“This is also when drug and alcohol use begin, and rates of delinquency and violence increase. Being a minority is tough and many youngsters are experiencing discrimination. We suspected this, and now we know that there are higher levels of discrimination and problem behaviors among multiracial youngsters.”

Lead author of the study was Yoonsun Choi, who did much of the research while she was earning her doctorate in social work at the UW. She is now an assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Other co-authors are Tracy Harachi, UW associate professor of social work and Mary Gillmore, a former UW professor of social work, who recently moved to Arizona State University.

The researchers surveyed more than 2,000 Seattle middle-school students, comparing behaviors of multiracial, white, black and Asian-American youth. White students were the largest group, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the participants, while there were nearly equal numbers of multiracial, black and Asian students. Data from the small number of Hispanic and American Indian adolescents in the middle schools surveyed did not permit meaningful comparisons. The students averaged 12.7 years of age when surveyed and girls made up slightly more than half of the sample.

Among the students who identified themselves as multiracial, there were 25 different combinations of racial or ethnic backgrounds including 10 combinations of three racial backgrounds and five combinations of four backgrounds. About 80 percent of the multiracial students included some black background.

“When it comes to multiracial youngsters, you have to take into account the experiences they are having with discrimination,” Catalano said. “Discrimination felt by these children no doubt contributed to involvement in problem behaviors. Formation of identity is more difficult for multiracial children who have to figure out where they fit in and belong.”

Harachi noted that while multiracial children are at higher risk for substance abuse and violent behavior, in most cases the majority of the multiracial youth were not involved in these problems.

“But there are growing numbers of multiracial children, and we need to know more about them,” she said. “These behaviors don’t start in adolescence, they begin earlier and are salient issues for these children. We need to grab on to problems earlier and address issues related to race and ethnicity early in their development.”

Funding for the research came from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Child and Human Development and the federal Office of Minority Programs.