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Teens who play sports get better grades, but are also more likely to drink and use drugs, U-M study shows.
ANN ARBOR---Idle hands may be the devil's workshop, but keeping high school teens busy playing sports isn't the cure-all it's widely assumed to be, according to a University of Michigan study.
The federally funded study tracked 1,259 10th-graders for six years, to see how participation in sports and other extracurricular activities affects a wide range of positive and negative behaviors, from academic performance to substance abuse.
"The take-home message for parents is that adolescent involvement in sports has positive effects on academic performance, but it also increases the likelihood of drinking and drug use," says U-M psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles, first author of an article on the study forthcoming in the Journal of Adolescent Research. "Other types of organized, extracurricular activities have the same benefits without the risks."
Eccles and co-author Bonnie L. Barber, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, found that high school "jocks" of both genders were more likely than teens who didn't participate in any organized activities to have higher grades as high school seniors and to be in college six years later. But they also were more likely to drink alcohol and use drugs.
The researchers found that 46 percent of the females and 67 percent of the males participated in team sports as sophomores. Other categories were: prosocial activities (27 percent of females and 16 percent of males), including church, volunteer and community service; performance activities (43 percent of females and 21 percent of males), including band, orchestra, choir, drama, or dance; school involvement (23 percent of females and 8 percent of males), including student government and pep club; and academic clubs or tutoring (17 percent of females and 11 percent of males).
"Teens who participated in any of these five types of extracurricular activities had better than expected high school GPAs (grade-point averages)," says Eccles, who is acting chair of the U-M department of psychology and an international expert in adolescent development and education. "Teens who participated in sports, school involvement activities and academic clubs also were more likely to be enrolled full-time in college at age 21.
"But only kids who were involved in prosocial activities, mainly church attendance, also appeared to be protected against increases in alcohol , drug use and truancy."
About 40 percent of adolescent waking hours are discretionary, meaning they're not taken up with school, homework, a job or chores, according to Eccles. "In our study, 69 percent of the youth surveyed participated in at least one organized activity during their discretionary time," she notes. "The range of activities was quite broad, but by far the most common, for both boys and girls, were team sports, band or orchestra, and church."
While the research did not identify the reasons that involvement in sports was linked with drinking and drug use, Eccles notes that playing sports was not associated with other problem behaviors such as skipping school or dropping out of school. "We often think drinking and other problem behaviors go together, and they certainly do in many children," she says. "But not in all cases, and especially not in those who are also involved in positive activities.
"Parents of teen athletes should not discourage them from playing sports. They should, however, be aware of the association between sports and substance abuse, and work with their teens to make sure they understand the risks of drinking and using drugs."
The research is part of the ongoing Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the W.T. Grant Foundation.
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