Rutgers–Camden Professors Conduct Research Study to Identify Intervention Pathways for Camden Youth

A snapshot paints a difficult picture for Camden’s adolescents: Covering nine square miles, more than 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Roughly a third of the population is under 18 years old. Some youth acknowledge seeing violence, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior in their midst.

camden1Often, with parents working, many youth in the city are left to their own devices. So is it just a matter of time before they make the same mistakes as some of their older counterparts? For Rutgers­­–Camden professors Stacia Gilliard-Matthews and Robin Stevens, that answer is an emphatic no. The duo is currently conducting a research study, titled EPIC Camden, to better understand how African American and Hispanic adolescents in Camden are navigating sexual behavior, as well as drug and alcohol use, within the context of high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods. The researchers seek to determine what pathways the adolescents take in their decision making, in order to devise strategies that will enable them to better deal with the risks that they are going to face.

“The goal for us is to take all of this science research and use it to improve the lives of these youth,” says Stevens, an assistant professor of childhood studies. “With adolescents, a lot of risk factors occur; they really feed into each other. But adolescents are still in the experimental phase, so they can be steered in the right direction.”

Stacia Gilliard-Matthews and Robin Stevens

Stacia Gilliard-Matthews and Robin Stevens

To carry out the study, Gilliard-Matthews and Stevens first met with their research team, comprised of graduate and undergraduate students – some of whom grew up in Camden – and devised a sampling plan that involved branching out in the city and recruiting youth to be interviewed. In addition, the researchers partnered with community agencies, including Lifting Up Camden’s Youth and Rutgers Future Scholars, in an effort to recruit some of the adolescents that they serve.

Youth participants were routinely interviewed in locations where they felt most comfortable, including their homes and in local parks. While the adolescents’ responses were widespread, the researchers found that certain patterns emerged. For instance, many adolescents reported that there weren’t any places in the city for them to gather and socialize. “And so, we saw their risk behaviors occurring within their homes, on the front steps, or in their friends’ homes,” says Stevens. “There was no safe space for them to go.”

In some instances, she adds, adolescents expressed engaging in risky behavior simply because they were bored. “In some ways, these behaviors are a byproduct of not having anything else to do,” says Stevens.

On the flipside, the Rutgers–Camden researchers found that adolescents successfully navigated risky behavior or potential violence by using various methods of avoidance. “They would change the way that they went to school,” says Gilliard-Matthews, an assistant professor of criminal justice. “Or they would go to a different corner store, because they didn’t want to interact with the individuals on the corner who they knew were drug dealers or addicts.”

camden2The researchers also unexpectedly found that, in an effort to avoid certain situations, some adolescents actually put themselves in harm’s way. For instance, some acknowledged using social media as a means of connecting with one another when it wasn’t possible to connect face-to-face. However, in doing so, they reported, the problems that they were experiencing in real life were spilling over into the social media world. Fights at school were thus later talked about on Facebook and, conversely, fights on Facebook carried over to school or parties. “It was reproducing the things that they were avoiding outside,” says Stevens, adding that the adolescents migrated toward alternate media, such as Twitter and Instagram, because the environment was more controlled.

Gilliard-Matthews agrees, noting that adolescents also expressed being more cautious about posting anything online that could provoke an altercation or cause public humiliation. “For females, we found that it would be a factor in delaying their first sexual encounters, because they feared that it would be put on Facebook by males they didn’t trust,” she says.

EPIC-featureIn addition to avoidance methods, the researchers found that adolescents also used strategies based on the perception of parental monitoring. From prior studies, the researchers knew that parental supervision was an important factor in teen decision making. However, they discovered that parents didn’t even need to be present. Rather, the teens merely had to perceive that their parents were present. “That was enough for them to say, ‘I’m not going to do that, because my mom will find out,’” says Stevens. “Mom doesn’t have to be there; it’s enough for them to think that she can see all and know all.”

Still completing the first phase, Gilliard-Matthews and Stevens plan to use the adolescents’ responses to create follow-up survey questions. The researchers will then test patterns of behavior and establish predictors, as well as map neighborhood resources and risky behavior in Camden in order to create an objective measure of neighborhood quality. In the final phase, the researchers will identify and utilize points of leverage for intervention. “We don’t yet know what this intervention will look like,” stresses Gilliard-Matthews. “It will grow out of what the youth say.”

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