Studies show link to risky behavior.

By: Sharon Jayson

                                                                                                      USA TODAY

Don’t be so quick to pass along that sage advice to your children about “setting a good example” for a younger brother or sister. New research on birth order suggests that just having an older sibling can be a negative influence on younger children in the family. Birth order has often been studied by pop psychologists delving into the personality traits of flrstborns, middle children and babies of the family. Other studies have examined birth order’s effect on education and earning power.

The new research by economics professors seeks to understand how teens get involved in risky behaviors that can have long-term economic consequences. it finds that the very existence of an older sibling increases the chances a younger sibling will drink, smoke, use marijuana or have sex.

“We show here that birth-order effects are quite strong,” says Susan Averett, an economics professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “We find a consistent effect. If you have an older sibling, you are more likely to engage in these risky behaviors. We don’t actually know if the older sibling is doing these things or not.” One study by Averett and colleagues is published in this month’s edition of the — journal Economic Inquiry, and two others have been presented at conferences but are not yet published. All involve the increased likelihood of risky behavior among younger siblings.

“We hypothesized that maybe it’s just because parents get lax” after the first child, she says, but when parental supervision was added to the mix, it “didn’t mitigate the effects of the older sibling.” Averett says parental supervision reduces the instances of these behaviors, but she says there are varying definitions of super-vision. In a not-yet-published analysis of 20,000 teens, she says teens reported whether a parent is home before school, after school or at bedtime.

“There could be a big difference between being home and actively supervising your adolescent,” she says. The published study, which was conducted through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, found that a child’s tendency toward risky behavior is influenced more by siblings than by parents.

The published study analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1997 to 1999. It included 7,000 to 8,000 children ages 12 to 16. A second study reviewed data from 1994 to 1996 from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which includes about 20,000 young people in grades seven to 12. Averett says the second study confirmed the results of the first.

A third analysis of about 6,000 high schoolers from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey in 1988, 1990 and 1992 examines the school involvement of younger siblings. It finds that although the negative influence of older siblings is clear; it’s not clear whether there are any positive effects. Such analyses don’t surprise Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He says studies have shown that later-born children are more susceptible to peer pressure.    “There is some evidence that as the number of children in a family increases, parents have proportionately less influence on them,” he says.

“Whereas firstborns spend all of their time early on just being influenced by parents, later-borns are influenced by parents and siblings . Siblings are peers who happen to be related to you.”

older sibling chart


USA TODAY Newspaper.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006. ( Page 7D)

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