It's a fact that surfaces in drug prevention programs, pop culture references and academic studies — one that makes church-going parents breathe sighs of relief and youth group leaders pat themselves on the back.
Religious teens are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. But the question is why?
In a new study (paywall) on substance use among adolescents, a group of researchers from the University of Florida seek to answer that question, focusing for what's thought to be the first time on the role a teen's worldview plays in the decision to avoid alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.
James Shepperd, a professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said the term "worldview" should be understood as "an explanatory way of seeing the world." It is the frame through which people answer questions like "Who am I?," "Why am I here?" and "How should I behave?" Not all worldviews are religious, but religious worldviews can be particularly effective at discouraging substance use because most religions offer guidance for everyday behavior that strengthens adolescents' moral grounding and worldview.
Shepperd and his colleagues correctly predicted that worldviews are not only stronger among religious adolescents, but also that these stronger outlooks reduce the likelihood of substance use. Experts said the study's conclusions have implications for parents and religious leaders, who can nurture a sense of purpose that helps teens say no to drugs and alcohol.
The formative years
Although "worldview" can be an unfamiliar term, even in the research community, Shepperd said it summarizes a basic concept: That humans are fundamentally guided in their everyday actions by a sense of integrity and a moral compass.
As a result of worldviews, "we know the rules and why they matter, and we have a commitment to these rules," he said, noting that these "rules" depend on personal experiences and beliefs and differ from person to person.
Timothy Kleiser, a doctoral student in anthropology and sociology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who has been a youth group leader for the past four years, said a worldview is like a story — one that details what we believe is true about the world and our place in it.
"Our beliefs do not exist in isolation. They are influenced by what comes before them and, in turn, they influence what comes next," he said. "In this way, worldviews are not just a vision of life — they are our vision for life."
Worldviews can shift throughout people's lives, but adolescence is an important period of development, Kleiser said. It's a time when teenagers are learning how to balance their own instincts with lessons taught by their elders and the actions of their peers.
For religious adolescents, this development can happen more easily, Shepperd said, given that religious systems include behavioral guidance. These young people are, in some sense, handed the answers to life's most basic questions, he said, strengthening their worldview at a young age.
Worldview and substance use
In the study, researchers were unconcerned with the content of participants' worldviews. Instead, they focused on how strongly beliefs were held, scaling the responses of religious and nonreligious adolescents and then analyzing substance use across the two groups.
Survey responses were collected from 1,253 Florida ninth graders. As predicted, religious adolescents displayed a stronger sense of worldview across four tested areas: meaning in life, moral compass, integrity and the ethics of lying.
Additionally, religious adolescents were less likely to report substance use. "Analysis revealed that nonreligious adolescents, compared with religious adolescents, were more likely in the prior six months, to have smoked cigarettes (14 percent versus 6 percent), drunk alcohol (34 percent versus 19 percent), and used marijuana (17 percent versus 7 percent)," the study reported.
Given that other factors such as a lack of opportunity and friend group composition have also been shown to reduce risky behaviors among religious teens, the researchers then looked specifically at worldview's role in deterring substance use. They found that it did not fully explain the link between religiosity and reduced substance abuse, but it was one statistically siginificant factor in the relationship, Shepperd said. In short, they found that religiosity leads to stronger worldviews among teens, which in turn leads to reduced substance use.
Sheppard noted that one of the study's most interesting findings was that religious belief actually isn't required for a strong worldview, even if it is more common among faithful teens. Further, a stronger worldview predicted substance use equally well for both religious and nonreligious adolescents.
"We know that kids who are not religious are getting a worldview from somewhere, maybe from the larger culture," Shepperd said. "And if they have one, it makes a difference" in their substance use decisions.
Takeaways for parents, religious leaders
As Shepperd and his colleagues continue to work with the substance use data they collected from Florida teens, he said he is happy to have some answers about why religious adolescents avoid drugs and alcohol. However, he still has many questions.
Perhaps the most pressing issue is that Shepperd does not have a clear sense of how worldviews are formed.
"We know that worldview matters, so we need to provide people with them," he said. But current research doesn't offer any strategies.
For men and women already focused on instilling religious values in young people, the study can be viewed as encouragement, Kleiser said. He noted that the new research illustrates the importance of modeling a religious worldview to adolescents.
"Our worldview is not ultimately what we think it is, but what we show it is. So if parents desire that their children develop a religious worldview, they must show it first," he said.
Similarly, the Rev. Erin Davenport, a social worker and ordained Presbyterian pastor, said the study reaffirmed her belief in the importance of being a good example for teens and providing safe spaces for them to see how their faith can inform every aspect of their lives.
"It's important to allow adolescents the space to talk about (a religion's worldview) during those formative years, so that they can make it their own," she said.
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