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To describe adolescent binge drinking trajectories across grades 8–11 and examine their associations with pubertal timing, socioeconomic status (SES), and structured activity and sport involvement.
Longitudinal data were analyzed from the Youth Activity Participation Study (YAPS), an annual survey of youth in 39 schools across Western Australia (N = 1,342).
Latent class growth analysis revealed four binge drinking trajectory groups: Accelerating (early onset, increased frequency), Steep Increase (delayed onset, rapid escalation), Slow Growth (delayed onset, gradual increase) and Stable Low (abstinence). Accelerating was characterized by early pubertal timing, low SES, and more sport involvement in grade 8, relative to Stable Low. The groups did not significantly differ in their grade 8 activity participation. However, for early maturers, greater grade 8 activity participation was associated with a decreased probability of belonging to Steep Increase relative to Stable Low.
Early pubertal timing and sports participation increased the odds of belonging to a problematic binge drinking trajectory. For youth at-risk due to early pubertal timing, structured activities appear to be protective against a problematic developmental course of binge drinking.
This longitudinal study shows that involvement in structured activities buffered youth at-risk due to early pubertal timing against following a problematic course of binge drinking. Structured activities are a modifiable protective factor and thus should be given increased consideration as a prevention tool.
Adolescent alcohol use is highly prevalent in the United States and abroad. Recent data indicate that over 14% of U.S. adolescents have been drunk in the last month and prevalence rates for risky drinking among Australian adolescents are analogous; 17% of adolescents report engaging in binge drinking on a monthly basis [
]. Given the numerous negative long-term health repercussions associated with heavy alcohol exposure during adolescence, it is essential to identify contexts that protect vulnerable youth from problematic drinking.
Adolescent drinking represents a considerable health burden and there are growing concerns that exposure to alcohol early in adolescence puts youth at elevated risk for mental health issues, substance dependence, and social problems in adulthood [
] found that relative to propensity-matched youth, adolescents with multiple exposures to alcohol by age 15 years were more likely to suffer from substance dependence and sexually transmitted disease infections in adulthood.
Mounting evidence also indicates that patterns of change in problematic drinking across adolescence may be especially important in determining later risk [
]. For example, Hill et al. found that youth who demonstrated early low levels followed by a rapid escalation in binge drinking were at greatest risk for substance abuse and dependence in young adulthood, relative even to early-onset binge drinkers [
]. Although constellations of heavy drinking risks tend to co-occur, previous studies have yielded considerable evidence that early pubertal timing is a key individual risk factor for early and increased substance use, including binge drinking [
]. One explanation for these equivocal findings is that early pubertal timing may impel youth toward distinct patterns of risky alcohol use. Despite consensus that early pubertal timing represents a health risk [
], research has not yet examined early maturation in relation to heterogeneity in patterns of change in binge drinking across adolescence.
Not all early maturing youth engage in binge drinking and the consequences of early maturation will vary according to adolescents' socioecological contexts. Social environments, in particular, may serve to either amplify or inhibit risks. Illustratively, some early maturing youth may experience a climate of relatively permissive behavioral expectations from peers or parents [
Just as increased exposure to risky peers exacerbates substance use vulnerability in early maturing youth, positive social contexts can buffer these adolescents against risk. For instance, the link between pubertal timing and problem behavior or problematic peers is weaker for youth in protective relational contexts characterized by high parental monitoring or positive parenting [
There is strong theoretical and empirical support for structured activities as a macrolevel intervention for improving adolescent health outcomes. Research has consistently indicated that participation in most structured activities facilitates healthy long-term physical and emotional health (e.g., [
]. Thus, protective effects against heavy drinking are more consistently found for structured nonsport activities than for sports.
The benefits of activity participation in reducing unhealthy behavior and promoting well-being may be particularly strong for at-risk youth. Mahoney identified youth at increased risk for problematic outcomes based on socioeconomic status (SES), social and academic competencies, aggression, and physical maturation [
]. The benefits of activity participation for problem behavior were most pronounced for youth characterized by multiple disadvantage. Because activities provide youth with structured time to build interpersonal skills, socialize with prosocial peer groups, and construct positive norms [
], activities may also buffer youth who are characterized by individual risk beyond socioeconomic disadvantage. Thus, the positive social contexts that typify structured activities may serve to inhibit the negative effects of early maturation on adolescent binge drinking. However, no study to date has investigated structured activities as a modifiable protective factor for early maturing youth.
The current study examines the relations between pubertal timing, time in structured activity and in sport in early adolescence and binge drinking trajectories. Specifically, we test whether pubertal timing and hours of activity and sport participation in eighth grade predict membership in binge drinking trajectory groups from grades 8–11. We also test the hypothesis that the protective effects of activities will be especially salient for early maturing youth.
Longitudinal data were examined from 1,342 Western Australian students (45% male) recruited from 39 schools for the Youth Activity Participation Study (YAPS). Participants were enrolled in the YAPS study beginning in eighth grade and were followed annually for 4 years. The mean age of participants in eighth grade was 13 years (SD = .54 years; Range 12–14 years). Of the sample, 83.9% of participants were Caucasian, 7.2% Asian, 2.1% Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and 6.8% other. Participants were recruited from high schools selected to represent the school districts across Western Australia.
Ethics approval to conduct research was obtained from the university Human Research Ethics Committee. Study participation required active informed parent and student consent. The survey was administered using wireless-laptop computers. Participants were told that the survey was confidential and participation was voluntary.
Eighth grade predictors
Pubertal timing was measured using one item, taken from Dubas et al. [
]). This item asks: “Teenagers' bodies change a lot as they grow up, this is referred to as your physical development. Compared with other people your age do you think your physical development has started?” Responses indicated ranged from (1) “much later” to (5) “much earlier.” Because we were interested in the effects of early maturation, we created a dichotomous variable so that 0 = average-late timing and 1 = early timing. This item was correlated positively with self-report weight (r (1,340) = .23, p < .001) and negatively with menarche age for girls (r (743) = −.17, p < .001).
SES for YAPS schools was obtained from the Department of Education and Training, which computes the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) for each school in the state (see [
]. We created an ordinal variable such that 1 = low SES, 2 = average SES, and 3 = high SES. School-level SES gauges relative community-level advantage or disadvantage, and because this is the same level of context in which sports and activities are organized, this broader index is a useful indicator of access to opportunities.
Youth were asked whether they had participated in any organized school or nonschool activities in the current school year. They were provided with a list of 24 nonsport structured extracurricular activities (e.g., band), and were asked to indicate the activities in which they participated and how many hours per week they participated in each. The total number of hours in activities was calculated by summing the hours across activities (M = 2.76 hours, SD = 4.70).
Youth were asked whether they had participated in any organized school or nonschool sports/teams outside of physical education classes in the current school year. They were provided with a list of 30 sports (e.g., basketball), and were asked to indicate the sports in which they participated and how many hours per week they participated in each. The total number of hours in sport was calculated by summing hours across all sports (M = 7.84, SD = 9).
Binge drinking was measured annually across four waves using one item based on Fredericks and Eccles [
]; which has been shown to have strong validity. The item was measured on an eight-point scale from (1) = None to (8) = 31 or more times. “In the past 6 months, how often have you had more than 5 alcoholic drinks on one occasion?” In grade 8, binge drinking was positively correlated with having been drunk (r (1,340) = .56, p < .001) and contact with the police (r (1,340) = .49, p < .001). The binge drinking means (and standard deviations) were 1.11 (.54), in grade 8; 1.35 (.97) in grade 9; 1.78 (1.49) corresponding with roughly once in 6 months in grade 10; and 2.26 (1.90) corresponding with between once and two–three times in the past 6 months in grade 11.
Latent class growth analysis (LCGA) is a type of finite mixture modeling that readily incorporates covariates into model selection, and decomposes variability in developmental trajectories to identify homogeneous, mutually exclusive groups that exist within a heterogeneous population [
]), generally a lower relative BIC indicates better model fit; and (3) model parsimony and class size.
First, unconditional latent class growth modeling without covariates was used to classify individuals into groups based on similarities in growth trajectories. Next, we added pubertal timing, gender, SES, sport and activity hours as predictors of class membership through the use of multinomial regression within the LCGA. One theoretically meaningful class is chosen as the reference class so that each parameter can be interpreted as the change in log odds of being in a given class for a one unit increase of the corresponding predictor. For the last step of the analyses, we included the pubertal timing x activity hours interaction to the conditional model.
We examined quadratic trajectories of binge drinking over time, and a four-class solution was the best fit to the data (Table 1). Binge drinking values for our preferred four-class solution are displayed graphically in Figure 1.
The first group, Accelerating (17.2% of sample), starts higher in grade 8 binge drinking relative to the other classes, and accelerates across the 4 years of the study. The second group, Steep Increase (6%), starts low in binge drinking but in grade 9 begins a rapid increase in binge drinking, so that by grade 11 this group has the highest reported rate of binge drinking. The third and largest group, Stable Low (65.7%), abstained from binge drinking across grades 8–11. Finally, Slow Growth (11.1%) remained fairly low in binge drinking, though showed some increases in binge drinking across time.
Within the LCGM model, we next examined whether youth following different binge drinking trajectories significantly differed in their pubertal timing and sport and activity participation hours in grade 8, controlling for gender and SES. Results revealed significant differences in comparison with the Stable Low class, described at the top of Table 2. Focusing on Accelerating (top of column 1) every one unit increase in SES decreased the odds of belonging to Accelerating by .71, holding other covariates constant. Likewise, the odds of belonging to Accelerating were 1.97 larger for early maturers relative to average-to-late maturers, holding other predictors constant. Further, every hour increase in sports participation hours increased the odds of belonging to Accelerating by 1.05. For Steep Increase (top of column 2), the odds of belonging to the Steep Increase group relative to Stable Low was .48 times smaller for males than for females, and every one unit increase in SES decreased the odds of belonging to Steep Increase by .58. Finally, the top of column 3 examines Slow Growth in comparison with the reference Stable Low class and indicates that every one unit increase in SES decreased the odds of belonging to Slow Growth by .68.
Table 2Odds ratios and 95% Confidence Intervals for multinomial logistic regression models of gender, SES, pubertal timing, activity, and sport predicting the probability of youth membership in latent trajectory group
Next, we examined whether the risk represented by early pubertal timing for binge-drinking pattern was attenuated by activity participation in grade 8. We ran LCGMs that included the predictors described above and with the activity hours x pubertal timing interaction. The results of the analyses examining the pubertal timing x activity hours interaction are described at the bottom of Table 2. The odds ratios of the Steep Increase group reveal a conditional effect for pubertal timing, such that 2.70 represents the ratio of the predicted odds for early maturers belonging to Steep Increase relative to the predicted odds for late maturers, when youth engage in zero activity hours. The interaction between pubertal timing and activity hours is also significant (OR = .67). The conditional odds ratio for activity hours indicates that for youth with average-late pubertal timing, there was a nonsignificant relation between activity hours and Steep Increase group membership. The interaction was further probed [
] and indicated that for early maturers, every 1 hour increase in activity decreased the odds of belonging to Steep Increase relative to Stable Low by .70 (95% CI: .52–.93).
Given the significant health concerns associated with adolescent binge drinking, it is essential to identify modifiable protective factors that decrease the odds that youth will follow a risky developmental course. The current study identified meaningful subgroups with varying trajectories of binge drinking across adolescence, two of which were particularly problematic: Accelerating (early onset, increased frequency) and Steep Increase (delayed onset, rapid escalation). The less risky groups were Slow Growth and Stable Low (abstinence from binge drinking). The latter group, Stable Low, was the largest group in the sample and was comprised of roughly 65% of youth. The substantial number of youth belonging to a non-binge-drinking trajectory is very much consistent with U.S. research indicating that roughly 70% of youth follow a trajectory defined by never, or rarely, drinking heavily [
Relative to Stable Low, Accelerating was characterized by increased likelihood of early pubertal timing, low SES, and sport involvement in eighth grade. Unlike previous research that demonstrates a general protective effect from nonsport activity participation (e.g., [
]), the groups did not significantly differ in their eighth grade activity participation. However, we also hypothesized that activity participation might be especially protective against problematic trajectories for youth at-risk based on relatively early pubertal timing. Our results supported this hypothesis. For early maturers, more eighth grade activity participation was associated with a lower probability of belonging to Steep Increase relative to Stable Low.
The current findings underscore the health risks associated with early pubertal maturation. Early maturers were more likely to belong to the Accelerating trajectory, which was characterized by early drinking that increased over 3 years. Previous alcohol research indicates that youth who follow early-onset binge drinking trajectories have higher drug and violence problems in emerging adulthood relative to more moderate/stable trajectories [
], our results indicate that supervised, organized sport involvement in eighth grade is also related to increased binge drinking risk. Specifically, youth in Accelerating were more heavily involved in sports relative to those who were Stable Low. Notably, Accelerating was the only group characterized by both early binge drinking and increased likelihood of early sport involvement, suggesting that the two are linked. However, these analyses cannot decipher whether binge drinking youth seek out sport involvement or whether sport involvement has a causal role in the development of problematic alcohol use. Nonetheless, our results highlight unintended health risks associated with sport participation, at least in early adolescence. Organized sports offer many benefits, ranging from fighting obesity to increased academic engagement, but these findings suggest that organized sport is not a panacea against all of the health risks that adolescents face.
Surprisingly, the four binge drinking trajectory groups were not significantly predicted by their eighth grade activity involvement. A body of prior work suggests that activities are protective against a range of problematic youth outcomes (e.g., [
]). However, most prior studies have examined exposure to activities using categorical composites of activity involvement. In contrast to prior work, this study examined activity dosage. Our null findings suggest that the effects of activities may not be linearly incremental and simple exposure to activities may be enough to promote positive outcomes among low-risk adolescents.
One of the central study questions was whether for youth at-risk for heavier binge drinking due to early pubertal maturation, activity involvement would be especially protective. Our results indicate a dose effect for activities among those youth. More specifically, greater activity involvement decreased the likelihood that early maturing youth would belong to Steep Increase relative to Stable Low. This is important because in eighth grade Steep Increasers were indistinguishable from youth who followed more moderate drinking trajectories and thus would not stand out as youth in need of early intervention. Activities seem to provide a protective climate in early adolescence, that can “re-route” early-maturing youth away from a problematic developmental course. Future research should investigate whether activities are protective only in early adolescence when early-maturers' binge-drinking is at odds with their on-time and late-maturing peers, or whether continued or later activity participation offers ensuing protection against binge drinking.
These results were present even after controlling for socioeconomic status and gender. Across each comparison, students from low SES schools were more likely to belong to less auspicious trajectories. This is consistent with much previous research that has demonstrated the impact of economic disadvantage on adolescents' risky pathways [
]. Female adolescents were also more likely than males to belong to Steep Increase relative to Stable Low. Most previous research shows that girls are less likely to follow problematic binge drinking pathways than boys [
]. We conjectured, and subsequent post-hoc analyses confirmed, that the gender difference was attributable to a suppressor effect, related to the inclusion of sport hours in the analyses.
Although this study offers unique insight into predictors of adolescent binge drinking pathways, it is not without limitations. First, although we controlled for SES, this was a school-level variable that we treated as individual-level and so standard errors may have been underestimated. Second, our sample, though large and representative of the Western Australian adolescent population, may not be comparable to adolescents in other industrialized nations. Moreover, we did not examine the moderating effects of specific sports or activities and future research should consider the ways in which different types of structured activities protect or exacerbate adolescent risk. In the same vein, we were not able to disentangle the mechanisms by which activities decreased binge drinking risk for early maturers. We also cannot rule out other third variable explanations, including selection, for the links uncovered here.
However, our findings extend prior research on a number of fronts. Early pubertal timing and sport involvement were related to a risky Accelerating binge drinking trajectory. Further, an interaction between pubertal timing and activity participation decreased the likelihood of belonging to another problematic trajectory—Steep Increase—whose youth rapidly escalated in their binge drinking after early abstinence. This finding is particularly noteworthy in that analyses accounted for both low SES and sports involvement, which are themselves risk factors for problematic drinking.
Portions of this research were supported through two grants to Bonnie Barber and Jacquelynne Eccles, and one grant to Bonnie Barber, Kathryn Modecki, and Jacquelynne Eccles from The Australian Research Council . We would like to thank the 39 high school principals, their staff, and the students who participated in the YAPS-WA study. We are grateful to everyone in the YAPS-WA team, with special thanks to Corey Blomfield Neira, Bree Abbott, Cathy Drane, Lynette Vernon, Stuart Watson, and Karina Annear for their contributions to data collection.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report. Drug Statistics Series No. 25. Cat. No. PHE 145. Canberra, Australia: AIHW; 2011.