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Saturday, April 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Studies say religious teens likely to avoid risky behaviors

Two new studies show that teens with strong religious views are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including sex, smoking, drinking and marijuana use.

Adolescents who viewed religion as a meaningful part of their life and a way to cope with problems were half as likely to use drugs than those who didn't see religion as important, according to a study of 1,182 teens tracked from seventh to 10th grade. This held true while facing hardships, such as illness or having an unemployed parent.

The findings were reported in the March issue of "Psychology of Addictive Behaviors," published by the American Psychological Association.

Researchers determined the importance of religion by asking simple questions such as whether teens relied on religious teachings or turned to prayer when facing a personal problem. This "buffering effect" was true for all ethnic groups in the study.

"Religiosity may influence a person's attitudes and values, providing meaning and purpose in life," said researcher Thomas Ashby Wills of Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Besides offering coping techniques, being involved with a religion can also create (healthier) social networks than adolescents would if they got involved with drugs."

A National Institute of Child Health and Human Development survey of nearly 5,000 15- to 18-year-olds found that religious beliefs influenced whether girls would have sex, but had only a minor impact on boys. Girls who cited a strong religious view were more likely to perceive the consequences of having sex negatively.

The study was published in the March "Social Forces."

"Parents' religious and sexual attitudes don't directly affect their children's decision to have sex, but they do influence the formation of their children's own attitudes toward sex," said researcher Ann Meier of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

— Stephanie Dunnewind, Seattle Times staff writer

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