June 24, 2018
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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study: Latino teens happier, healthier if families embrace biculturalism

Video: For video of researcher Paul Smokowski talking about the
findings, visit

CHAPEL HILL - Over the years, research has shown that Latino youth face
numerous risk factors when integrating into American culture, including
increased rates of alcohol and substance use and higher rates of
dropping out of school. 

But a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
shows adolescents who actively embrace their native culture - and whose
parents become more involved in U.S. culture - stand a greater chance of
avoiding these risks and developing healthier behaviors overall. 

The findings are from a longitudinal study by the UNC-based Latino
Acculturation and Health Project, which is supported by the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and directed by Paul Smokowski,
Ph.D., an associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work.
Researchers interviewed 281 Latino youths and parents in North Carolina
and Arizona, asking questions about a wide range of measures of
lifestyle and mental health. Participants answered according to how much
they agreed with each question (for example, from "not at all" to "very
much"), resulting in scores on a scale for each measure. 

"We found teens who maintain strong ties to their Latino cultures
perform better academically and adjust more easily socially," Smokowski
said. "When we repeated the survey a year later, for every 1-point
increase in involvement in their Latino cultures, we saw a 13 percent
rise in self-esteem and a 12 to 13 percent decrease in hopelessness,
social problems and aggressive behavior. 

"Also, the study showed parents who develop a strong bicultural
perspective have teen children who are less likely to feel anxiety and
face fewer social problems," he said. "For every increase in a parent's
involvement in United States culture, we saw a 15 to 18 percent decrease
in adolescent social problems, aggression and anxiety one year later.
Parents who were more involved in U.S. culture were in a better position
to proactively help their adolescents with peer relations, forming
friendships and staying engaged in school. This decreases the chances of
social problems arising."

"Such results suggest that Latino youth and their parents benefit from
biculturalism," Smokowski said.

The findings are presented as part of a series of articles featured next
month in a special issue of The Journal of Primary Prevention, a
collaborative initiative between UNC and the CDC. The special issue
presents the latest research on how cultural adaptation influences
Latino youth behaviors - including involvement in violence, smoking and
substance use, as well as overall emotional well-being - and offers
suggestions for primary prevention programs that support minority

"Bicultural adolescents tend to do better in school, report higher self
esteem, and experience less anxiety, depression and aggression," said
study co-author Martica Bacallao, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the
University of North Carolina at Greensboro, whose work is also featured
in the special issue. "It is interesting that, in order to obtain these
benefits of biculturalism, adolescents and parents often need to do the
opposite of what their natural tendencies tell them. Parents who are
strongly tied to their native cultures must reach out to learn skills in
the new culture. Adolescents who quickly soak up new cultural behaviors
should slow down and cultivate the richness in their native cultures." 

Smokowski added: "The burgeoning size of the Latino population and the
increasingly important roles that Latino youth will play in American
culture are worthy of community attention. Communities can either invest
in prevention to nurture Latino youth as a national resource or pay a
heavy price later in trying to help these youth address social problems
such as substance use, aggression or dropping out of school; all of
which often results from the stress of acculturation."

Along with Smokowski and Bacallao, Rachel L. Buchanan, Ph.D., assistant
professor of social work at Salisbury University in Maryland, was a
co-author of the study, titled "Acculturation and Adjustment in Latino
Adolescents: How Cultural Risk Factors and Assets Influence Multiple
Domains of Adolescent Mental Health."

To learn more about the Latino Acculturation and Health Project, go to:

The Journal of Primary Prevention web site:

School of Social Work contact: Michelle Rogers, (919) 962-1532,
News Services contact: Patric Lane, (919) 962-8596, patric_lane@unc.edu


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