running legs chasing a soccer ballHow can adults help young people avoid risky behavior like smoking and drinking? Research from Dartmouth University found that participation in coached extracurricular activities, like sports or clubs, is linked to a decreased risk of trying smoking and drinking among pre-adolescents. For these “tweens,” young people aged 10 to 14, involvement in supervised activities seems to influence the decision to try cigarettes or alcohol. These findings may influence the type of activities that schools and communities make available for older children.

The researchers conducted a phone survey in 2003 to gather data from a nationally representative sample of 6,522 U.S. students aged 10 to 14. The goal was to determine the influence of extracurricular activities on smoking and drinking. They wanted to find out whether young people who participated in any sport better avoided cigarettes and alcohol, or if the effect was only present for sports with a coach. They asked the students about their participation in team sports with a coach, other sports without a coach, music, school clubs, or other clubs.

Most tweens participated in some form of activity. Over half of the students reported participating in team sports a few times a week—55.5% with a coach and 55.4% without a coach. Approximately three-quarters of students (74.2%) had no or minimal participation in school clubs, but 85.8% were in some other kind of club. Less than half were involved in music, choir, or dance and more than half participated regularly in religious activities.

The findings demonstrate that playing team sports with a coach was the only extracurricular activity associated with a lower risk of trying smoking. Participating in other clubs was the only type of extracurricular activity associated with a lower risk of trying drinking.

These results seem to contradict conventional wisdom that older children need less supervision, since the tweens surveyed benefited from having supervised extra-curricular activities. The findings could help shape youth programs targeted to tweens.

“In the transition from tween to adolescent years, coached sports teams face pressure to shift from a philosophy of inclusion to a greater emphasis on winning. This shift potentially shuts out tweens with fewer skills and/or lesser interest in facing the pressures associated with increased competition,” stated lead author Anna Adachi-Mejia, Ph.D., a member of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center’s Cancer Control Research Program.

This research is published in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

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