Jan. 22, 2002 -- These days, anything that can help keep teenagers in school, off the street, and out of trouble sounds like a good idea. And the answer may be as simple as a positive role model. New research shows that teens who have someone to look up to -- someone they know personally -- feel better about themselves, perform better in school, and are less likely to smoke or do drugs.
We've all seen those public service ads on TV entreating us to do something worthwhile and become a mentor. But does serving as a mentor, a positive role model, really do kids any good? You'd certainly think so, but no scientific study had ever investigated the issue. So Antronette K. Yancey, MD, MPH, from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, and colleagues took a look at how 750 multiethnic L.A. teens, aged 12 to 17, were doing, and whether positive adult role models influenced their lives.
More than half the teens interviewed said they had someone they could "admire or look up to" in their lives. Seven percent of the kids named doctors, lawyers, teachers, or clergy members as their role models, while 34% identified sports figures, singers, or actors. Lower-income kids were less likely to name any role model and more likely to name a sports or media figure than a known individual.
Compared with kids who didn't have a role model, those who did had higher grades and better self-esteem. For white male teens without a father in the home, having a role model was associated with reduced smoking, drinking, and drug use. Among those who identified a role model, kids whose mentor was someone they knew personally fared the best.
The conclusion? Mentoring is most certainly a worthwhile endeavor, and providing teens with a positive role model -- preferably someone he or she knows personally -- can make an enormous and long-lasting difference. "Because role modeling provides critical, and potentially socially constructive, access to the self-images of ... youth, progress in this arena is central to advancing the field of adolescent health promotion," the researchers write.