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UNL, BGSU researchers analyze youth’s views on mortality

  • Kelli Rollin | DN
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Some children think they’re invincible – and others aren’t sure they’ll live to 35, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher found.

“We have this idea that kids have this ‘I’m going to live forever’ sort of attitude,” said Tara Warner, an assistant professor of sociology who analyzed the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health alongside a Bowling Green State University researcher. “But when researchers started actually talking with kids and looking at this a little more in depth, we started to find out kids don’t tend to believe they are as invulnerable as we do.”

Warner and Raymond Swisher, an associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, started their research three years ago, planning to analyze data from the adolescent health study. They combed over nationwide data from 20,745 adolescents, grades seven through 12, starting in 1995. The survey followed up with the adolescents in 1996 and 2001-2002 to note any changes in opinions or behaviors.

Warner and Swisher focused on the question “What are the chances that you’ll live to 35?” Adolescents had five answer choices ranging from “very certain” to “no chance.” They found 15 percent of surveyed children expressed a 50/50 chance, not a good chance or no chance of living to age 35.

Warner said 15 percent may not seem like a lot, but “the fact that 15 percent couldn’t even say ‘there’s a very good chance I’m going to live to 35’ is still quite startling.”

Warner said she and Swisher wanted “to dig deeper” into the communities and find explanations for these pessimistic attitudes about the future.

They looked at four specific areas in the survey that could undermine feelings of safety: the participant’s physical and mental health, behaviors, if he or she is a member of a racial or ethnic minority and his or her neighborhood environment.

Warner said they noticed the participants’ neighborhoods affected how they thought about their survival. She said they found violent and poor neighborhoods were closely associated with uncertainty of survival.

“This idea of looking at your future has serious implications about how we go about our day-to-day lives,” Warner said. “If you expect you’re going to live a long time, you are more committed to doing all the good things you need to do, but if you’re growing up in this situation where you’re like, ‘Who knows if I’m going to see tomorrow,’ that has serious consequences about how you can plan for your future.”

Swisher said personal safety is a “real concern for people in poor neighborhoods.”

“Most people take survival into adulthood for granted,” he said, “but for kids surrounded by violence, it can’t be taken for granted.”

Swisher said policymakers seem to think poor neighborhoods are disadvantaged due to lack of jobs or opportunities, but “it’s really because of lack of safety.”

He said he wants to see more safety-related policy so people don’t have to have these survival doubts.

Warner said these research findings don’t just apply to the participants but are universal.

“I think it also hits close to home for us here (in Nebraska) and definitely points to a need for more resources and attention to the neighborhoods in our backyard,” she said.

Warner said she would love to do research on communities closer to home, especially rural ones, because there hasn’t been a lot of research concerning how they affect adolescents’ attitude on survival.

“Nebraska is a great place to do research on neighborhoods in general because we’ve got a wide a variety of types of places,” Warner said. “I think there are plenty of avenues for future research.”

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