Religious teens were less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs - or start later and use them less - visited bars less often, received fewer traffic tickets, and were less likely to shoplift, commit arson or trespass.
But the better behaviors were found only among teens who attended religious services at least once a week. And, Smith observed, the study doesn't claim a causal relationship between religion and better behaviors. "We're not making any causal claims," he said. "We just want to put this out on the table. ... A lot of people are interested in adolescent well-being."<>p>The 68-page report, titled "Religion and American Adolescent Delinquency, Risk Behaviors and Constructive Social Activities," doesn't delve into religious denominations, or which religious group showed the best behaviors.
Researchers studied data gathered from a University of Michigan nationally representative survey of 2,478 high school seniors. "That's not surprising at all," Rabbi James Perman of Temple Shalom of Naples, Fla., said about the study. "The ethical aspect of religion is extremely important for teens because they're trying to find out the right thing to do."
Rev. Kathleen Korb of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Naples agreed. "It's the thing one might expect because when kids have a community in which they take a responsible part, then that will translate into the rest of their life," she said. "Particularly when the community's primary concern is instilling good values."
Said Rector Kathyrn Schillreff of St. Monica's Episcopal Church in Naples: "We as Christians believe that we're created in God's image and worthwhile, so we shouldn't abuse our bodies with substances or behaviors that aren't good, and we teach that."
The study showed religious 12th-graders argued with parents less, skipped school less, and faced fewer detentions. On the flip side, the teens also exercised more and participated more in student government.
Researchers will continue to delve into what churches do or don't do well with respect to young people. For instance, Smith said he wants to know more about how and why attendance at religious services affects behavior.
Smith, a sociology professor, heads a four-year project called the National Study of Youth and Religion, which will study, among other things: effective religious practices of youth; how teens benefit from religious activities; as well as foster a national discussion about the influence of religion on adolescents.
The study can be accessed at www.youthandreligion.org.
Smith said the study findings don't support more religion in schools. "Public schools have strict boundaries and (we're) not advocating for any particular change in that regard," he said. "Religion works not through school but with church, family and friendship."