OUT OF CONTROL: TEENAGERS, SELF-CONTROL, AND RISKY BEHAVIORS

Authors: Flavia-Elena CIURBEA (1), Urša LEBAN (2), Cornelia RADA (3)
Keywords: self-control; adolescence; impulsivity; risky behaviors.

DOI:10.26758/12.1.4

All authors of the article have contributed equally.

(1) National Correctional Officers Training School Târgu Ocna, Department of Law, Social Sciences and Humanities, Tisești street, No. 137, Târgu Ocna, Bacău county, Romania;

(2) Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana; e-mail: ursaleban@gmail.com

(3) “Francisc I. Rainer” Anthropology Institute of the Romanian Academy, Romania;

e-mail: corneliarada@yahoo.com

Address correspondence to: Flavia-Elena Ciurbea, School of Advanced Studies of the Romanian Academy, “Constantin Rădulescu-Motru” Institute of Philosophy and Psychology, Department of Psychology, Romanian Academy, Bucharest, Romania, 13 September Avenue, No.13, 5th District, Bucharest, 050711, Romania. Ph.: +40-746-692-576; E-mail: ciurbeaflavia@gmail.com

Abstract

Obiectives. This systematic review aimed to explore the relationship between low self-control and risky behaviors, in order to identify prophylactic and interventional measures to reduce the dangers to which some adolescents may be exposed.

Material and methods. Using the APA PsycNet and PubMed platforms, studies that investigated the link between self-control and risk were sought. Of the 2707 articles initially obtained, it was opted for studies in English, with the average age of the participants between 14-21 years old.

Results. The 61 selected articles revealed seven categories of risks associated with a low level of self-regulation: substance use – 28 studies, aggressive manifestation – 13 studies, delinquency – 10 studies, risky sexual behaviors – 8 studies, living the situation of a victim – 4 studies, gambling – 2 studies, other risky behaviors (consumption of unhealthy foods, compulsive manifestations, executive dysfunctions, etc.) – 9 studies. Some authors have shown that self-control can hold both a mediator and a moderator role between certain predictors and risky behaviors. Also, the relationship between self-control and risky behaviors can be influenced by intermediate variables: substance use, volume of the left orbitofrontal cortex (mediators); school climate (moderator). Five studies indicated that boys showed less self-control capacity than girls, and two other studies showed the opposite.

Conclusions. Designing and implementing some individual and group intervention programs, with a focus on acquiring behavioral control skills, can be useful in preventing risky behaviors in adolescents, especially substance use, aggressive manifestations, delinquency, etc. It is also important that the management of one’s own emotions be learned from pre-adolescence, the involvement of parents being essential in this psycho-educational approach.

Keywords: self-control; adolescence; impulsivity; risky behaviors.

Introduction

From a macroscopic point of view, the human brain consists of three major component elements: the brainstem, the oldest part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective, which the neuroscientist McLean called the “reptilian brain”, the paleocortex, also called the limbic system, with a role in the expression of emotions, and the neocortex, the most recently developed part of the brain responsible for logical reasoning and language, also known as gray matter (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1981/2001). The prefrontal cortex is a region of the neocortex whose development occurs later and whose ventromedial areas are involved in the control of emotional and instinctual behaviors (Fuster, 2002, p. 373).

The American Psychological Association defined self-control as “the ability to have command over one’s own behavior (overt, hidden, emotional, or physical) and to restrain or inhibit one’s impulses”, this definition referring to the comparison between long-term and short-term gain, opting for the former illustrating self-control, and the choice of the second representing impulsivity (VandenBos, 2013/2020, pp. 70-71). Some neuroscientists have explained that people have a single brain that hosts two minds: self-control and the impulsive self (McGonigal, 2012). According to McGonigal (2012), the impulsive self is in search of immediate gratification, while self-control refers to that part of the person exercising control over impulses, postponing the immediate achievement of pleasure and thus protecting the person’s long-term goals. In the literature, self-control can be found under different names, among which Duckworth (2011) recalled the delay of gratification, effort control, willpower, executive control, time preference, self-discipline, self-regulation, and the ego strength (p. 2639).

According to McCrae (1976, as cited in McCrae & Löckenhoff, 2010, p. 147), self-control cannot be described as a trait or as a process, but rather as a function that can be influenced by certain personality traits. With time, however, self-control began to be considered a trait, as it could be observed that people differed from each other in their ability to self-regulate (McCrae & Löckenhoff, 2010; Baumeister & Tierney, 2011).

Self-control began to be discussed in the context of crime as early as 1950 by Glueck and Glueck, according to whom a low level of self-control is responsible for impulsive behaviors, which sometimes acquire a criminal aspect (as cited in Marsh, Melville, Morgan, Norris, & Walkington, 2006, p. 60). In 1990, self-control was the subject of a theory of criminal behavior developed by Gottfredson and Hirschi, who explained that low self-control is a consequence of poor child-rearing, and this leads to committing crimes later in life, as the person is unable to anticipate the consequences of his actions (as cited in DeCamp, 2015; Rafter, Posick, & Rocque, 2016, p. 299). According to the initiators of this theory, self-control is consolidated until the age of eight, following that after this age threshold it will remain constant. However, studies using brain imaging have shown that in adolescence, the brain goes through a series of changes with an effect on emotions, reasoning, behavior organization, and self-control (Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 1978/2010, p. 360).

Inhibitory incapacity represents the central feature for a group of disorders specific to childhood and the age of adolescence – disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013/2016, p. 461). In people diagnosed with conduct disorder, differences in structure and functioning were revealed in the cerebral areas with a role in self-regulation, especially in the ventral prefrontal cortex and amygdala (APA, 2013/2016, p. 474). Some people with conduct disorder that started before 15 years may develop later in life antisocial personality disorder, which may be manifested by inability to comply with social norms, deception, impulsivity, irritability and aggressiveness, indifference to one’s own safety and that of others, irresponsibility or the absence of remorse (APA, 2013/2016, p. 659). Sometimes, because of their behavior, these people end up being sentenced to prison. In forensic situations, “even when one of the features of the disorder is the reduction of control over the behavior, the presence of the diagnosis itself does not demonstrate that the individual in question is (or was) unable to control his behavior at any given time” (APA, 2013/2016, p. 25).

According to the existing statistics at European level, in 2018, out of the total number of detainees, about 10689 were juveniles, Romania being at that time on the 18th place in the ranking of the states with the highest incarceration rate for juveniles (Eurostat, 2020). At the end of 2020, in the custodial system in Romania were 249 minors and 839 young people aged between 18 and 21 years (Administrația Națională a Penitenciarelor [National Administration of Penitentiaries (NAP)], 2020). Most of them were male, and the most frequently committed crime was robbery, followed by theft, murder, rape, trafficking and illicit drug use, etc. (NAP, 2020).

In the United States of America (USA), the arrest rate of persons aged between 10 and 17 years has registered a downward trajectory since 1996, reaching in 2019 the lowest number of arrests for this age group from 1980-2019 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delincuency Prevention, 2020). A similar trend was registered in Europe, the rate of juvenile inmates decreasing between 2009 and 2018, except for 2017, when a slight increase in the number of cases of juvenile arrested was reported, compared to previous years (Eurostat, 2020).

The fact that the number of arrests among young people has decreased in recent years does not eliminate the problem of conduct which is the reason for the arrest and the associated factors. Moreover, these data raise the issue of the level of self-control available to adolescents involved in risky behaviors, sometimes at the limit or even outside the law. However, to state that adolescents are incapable of self-control as a result of incomplete brain development indicates a limiting belief. Assumptions such as those about the fact that adolescents are not able to make optimal decisions, that they do not have a prefrontal cortex, or that all adolescents go through similar periods of storm and stress were dismantled by Casey and Caudle (2013), who showed that some adolescents may have more self-control compared to some adults.

In view of all this, the present paper aims to highlight the dangerous consequences of a low level of self-control during adolescence, in the idea of promoting the importance of ensuring the access of adolescents to the resources necessary to stimulate the development of this trait.

Purpose and objectives of the study

This paper aimed to explore the literature on the relationship between low self-control and the risks associated with such a trait in adolescents and youth. The results of such an investigation could prove useful in formulating directions of prevention and intervention in order to reduce the crime rate among this category of persons.

The questions that guided the research were the following:

1. What risk behaviors are adolescents with low levels of self-control involved in?

2. What is the specific risk behavior of adolescents with a low level of self-control?

3. Are there gender differences between teenagers in terms of self-control?

From these research questions, the following objectives were drived:

O1: Selecting the most relevant studies in which the relationship between the low level of self-control and risks during adolescence was investigated.

O2: Extracting the main results related to the risky consequences of a low level of self-control in adolescence.

O3: Formulating recommendations to facilitate the development of self-control in adolescents, depending on the risk behavioral specificity.

Methodology

Source of data

The search platforms used to identify the literature needed to carry out this systematic review were APA PsycNet and PubMed. The search strategy consisted of combining the terms low self-control and risk, the link between the two terms being made by „AND”. The filters available on the two platforms were used, and the search results were selected according to age group (teenagers and youth) and the language in which the articles were written (English). It is important to note that the interval for each age group was different from one platform to the other, in the case of APA PsycNet taking into account the interval 13-17 years for adolescence and 18-29 years for young adulthood, and in the case of PubMed, adolescence was defined as the period between 13-18 years, while the young adulthood was set to fall between 19-24 years.

Following this search method, a number of 2707 articles were obtained. They were published between 1973 and 2021 and were extracted from the two platforms in January 2021.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

The filters provided by the platforms for access to the scientific literature have proven to be useful, but not sufficient. In addition, filters differ from one platform to another (some platforms offer a limited variety of them), making it difficult to replicate the same article selection strategy. As a result, inclusion and exclusion criteria were defined for sorting the items obtained. These criteria are presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Inclusion and exclusion criteria used in the sorting process of items (to see table 1, please click here)

Data analysis and extraction

The articles obtained on PubMed such as those based on the selection, analysis, and interpretation of the results of other published works on the subject of low self-control and the risks associated with it were identified through the filters available on this platform and were subsequently saved in the Zotero program (Corporation for Digital Scholarship, n.d.), in a separate collection. Then, after all the articles generated by PubMed were saved in Zotero, the duplicate records represented by those described above were deleted. Thus, 157 search results such as meta-analyses, reviews, and systematic reviews were eliminated.

For the remaining items, the selection procedure of the most relevant ones was continued in the Zotero program. This program allowed sequential registration of items downloaded from the two search platforms, announcing that one of the items identified on the PubMed platform was withdrawn in 2016.

The first sorting was based on searching for the terms self-control and self-regulation in all the files and labels of the folder in which the remaining 2550 unique items were archived. Articles whose title, summary, or labels contained at least one of these terms were extracted (188). Of these articles, three other items were removed, as they constituted a duplicate (some articles were found on both PubMed and APA PsycNet).

For the 185 articles, a detailed analysis of the titles and abstracts was used, excluding 102 articles for reasons such as those presented in Table 2.

Table 2

Phase 1 and 2 of exclusion (to see table 2, please click here)

During the analysis of the abstracts, additional notes were introduced to the included items, in order to facilitate the reading of the entire text of the articles. The 83 articles whose abstracts were selected were subsequently subjected to an in-depth analysis of the text, following mainly those indicators noted during the analysis of the abstracts. Additional information of interest to the study that resulted from the full analysis of the text of each article was further noted in the Zotero program.

Another 22 studies were removed after checking the inclusion criteria in the whole article. In most cases, the reasons for exclusion were the exceeding of the range set for the average age and the lack of information required for this analysis (about the sample size, the average age and level of self-control of the participants, the proportion of participants by gender and the place of the research).

Those papers that did not provide data about the age of the participants, but which provided information about the level of education at which they were enrolled (e.g. high school) were also selected. However, studies that did not provide information on the age of the participants, but mentioned that they were students in a university, were excluded, as the age of people pursuing university studies can vary considerably, from adolescence to the third age. In the end, there are 61 articles left on whose data the results of this work are based. The entire systematic review process of the articles is summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Diagram of the selection process of the articles (to see figure 1, please click here)

Results

In Table 3, placed after the conclusions, the information of interest extracted from each article was summarised. Data such as the number, average age, and gender of the participants, the place of the research, the design of the study, the particular features of the sample, and the main results related to the risk behaviors associated with a low level of self-control were followed.

Most studies (35) were conducted in the USA, but it is important to note that some research has covered several countries. Data obtained from participants from China, Italy, South Korea, and Canada were analyzed in three articles each, while samples from India, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands were investigated in two scientific papers each. People from Colombia, Cyprus, Jordan, Kenya, Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, New Zealand, Taiwan, Israel, Malaysia, Texas, Georgia, Finland, and the United Kingdom (UK) were included in one study each.

Of the total articles included in the systematic review, 21 were based on data from extensive projects such as Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T., n.d.), Zurich Project on the Social Development from Childhood to Adulthood (zproso) (Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development, n.d.), the Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS) (Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, 2017), etc. Most of the studies (35) had a longitudinal design, and the remaining 26 were cross-sectional.

Sample sizes ranged from 25186 to 27 participants. Regarding the gender of the participants, although the majority percentage was represented by girls, in most studies a balanced ratio between the number of girls and that of boys was maintained. In five of the studies, only male individuals were evaluated.

The selected cross-sectional studies included adolescents with a minimum age of 13 years, the maximum average age being 21.39 years. In the case of longitudinal research, the youngest participants at the time of the first measurement were newborns, and the oldest participants at the last moment of data collection had an average age of 36.6 years.

The results related to the risk behaviors with which the low level of self-control was associated can be grouped into the following main categories: substance use (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes) – 28 studies, aggressive manifestation (including externalizing behavior problems and self-aggression – e.g. suicidal behaviors) – 13 studies, delinquency – 10 studies, engaging in risky sexual behaviors (unprotected sex, more sexual partners) – 8 studies, living the victim situation – 4 studies, gambling – 2 studies, other risky behaviors (consumption of unhealthy foods, compulsive manifestations, executive dysfunctions, etc.) – 9 studies.

The main risky behaviors identified are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Risky behaviors associated with a low level of self-control (to see figure 2, please click here)

In some cases, it was found that self-control had a mediating role between a certain variable and some risky behaviors. For example, self-control mediated the relationship between the financial stress faced by adolescents’ families and their risky sexual behavior (Crandall, Magnusson, Novilla, Novilla, & Dyer, 2017). In other studies, self-control mediated the link between sleep deprivation and delinquency (Meldrum, Barnes, & Hay, 2015) and between socioeconomic disadvantage in early adolescence and conventional trajectories of sexual partners in late adolescence (Kogan, Yu, Brody, & Allen, 2013). In this context, financial stress, sleep deprivation, and socio-economic disadvantage did not automatically determine risk behaviors, but had as impact a low level of self-control. Low self-control was the variable that subsequently led to risky sexual behavior, delinquency, and more sexual partners, creating a bridge between these behaviors and the other risk factors. An illustration of the identified mediation relationships is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Self-control as a mediator variable (to see figure 3, please click here)

Some researchers have identified a moderating effect of low self-control on the risky behaviors of adolescents. For example, Chang et al. (2018) showed that self-control moderates the relationship between trauma and suicidal behaviors, and Rising and Bol (2017) presented the moderating influence of self-control in the relationship between labels that specify the number of calories and food choice. Liu, Oshri, and Duprey (2020) identified self-control as the moderator of the relationship between childhood maltreatment and alcohol-related problems, while Lindgren, Neighbors, Westgate, and Salemink (2014) have observed that self-control moderates the link between drinking identity and alcohol consumption, respectively alcohol issues. The moderator character of self-control translates into the intensity of the relationship between predictor variables and risk behaviors. Thus, the link between childhood mistreatment and problematic alcohol-related behaviors, between drinking identity and alcohol consumption, between labels stating the number of calories and the choice of high-calorie foods, respectively between trauma and suicidal behavior, was stronger in adolescents with a low level of self-control as opposed to their counterparts with a high level of self-control. The role of moderator of self-control is schematized in Figure 4.

Figure 4

Self-control as a moderating variable (to see figure 4, please click here)

However, there have also been authors who have found that the relationship between self-control and risk behaviors is moderated or mediated by a third variable. In this regard, Novak and Clayton (2001) found that schools with low levels of discipline and involvement moderated the link between the low level of self-regulation of adolescents who participated in the study and their increased likelihood of experiencing smoking. Moilanen and Manuel (2018) observed that low self-control indirectly determines the early sexual onset and low level of condom use through substance use (mediation relationship). At the same time, Cheetham et al. (2017) showed that the smaller volume of the left orbitofrontal cortex mediated the relationship between effort control and substance use disorder. Figures 5 and 6 show the effect of mediating and moderating variables on the relationship between self-control and various risky behaviors.

Figure 5

Mediating the relationship between self-control and risky behaviors (to see figure 5, please click here)

Figure 6

Moderating the relationship between self-control and risky behaviors (to see figure 6, please click here)

Gender differences in the level of self-control were identified in seven studies. Compared to girls, in five of them boys showed a lower self-control capacity (Piquero, Gibson, & Tibbetts, 2002; Clark, Dannellan, Robins, & Conger, 2015; Esposito, Bacchini, Eisenberg, & Affuso, 2017; Innamorati & Maniglio, 2015; Quinn & Fromme, 2010), and in two studies they reported a higher self-control capacity (Winstok, 2009; Ellis et al., 2015). In some papers, the comparison between males and females were outlined at the level of risk behaviors, some risky behaviors being identified only in a certain gender group. In others, it was highlighted in the relationship between self-control and such problematic behaviors, these being more pronounced for a certain gender. For example, compared to girls, boys were found to be more likely to engage in binge drinking (Piquero et al., 2002), and in other studies, reduced self-control was associated with suicide attempt and condom non-use only in their case (Huang et al., 2017; MacKellar et al., 2000).

Discussions

Based strictly on the psychological variables analyzed in the studies included in the present systematic literature review, the risk behavioral specificity of adolescents with low levels of self-control was found to be related to substance use. This category included substances such as tobacco, cannabis (marijuana), opioids, and alcohol. Then, in descending order of the incidence of risky behaviors, aggressive manifestation, delinquency, risky sexual behaviors, victim history, and gambling were recorded. Another category was built from different behaviors, such as: excessive use of mobile phones, consumption of fast food, which were considered by the authors of this paper not to represent a direct danger to society or the person who practices them. However, a study conducted in Bucharest on a group of 459 subjects (83 male and 376 female) with an average age of 23.5 years showed that about 75% of the participants opened the mobile phone more than 10 times in an hour and that almost half of the study participants recognized that they could not last more than six hours without opening a device, self-control and low self-esteem, severe parents or family dysfunctions representing risk factors for the problematic use of smartphones (Baciu, 2020).

One of the advantages of this systematic analysis is the diversity of samples included in the 61 studies. Due to this, it was found, for example, that delinquency was not specific only to juvenile offenders (Fine, Steinberg, Frick, & Cauffman, 2016; Davis et al., 2018), and it also was identified in samples representative of the general population (Cho, 2019; Yun, Kim, & Park, 2016). Samples of frequent cannabis users (e.g. Lopez-Vergara, Jackson, Meshesha, & Metrik, 2019) also can be mentioned, who obtained results comparable to those obtained by participants randomly selected from among high school students (e.g. Pahl, Brook, & Lee, 2014).

Another advantage is represented by the multitude of longitudinal research, which allowed the long-term follow-up of behaviors determined by a low level of self-regulation, thus avoiding the main limitation assumed by a single assessment at a certain point in time: the impossibility of establishing a causal relationship between the variables involved (Kramer, 1988). Then, sample sizes and cultural variability can give the results a character of generality. However, a certain degree of caution is required in terms of extending the conclusions of these studies to the entire adolescent population, as some individual and cultural peculiarities can moderate the relationship between self-control and behavior.

Substance use and gambling – low self-control

In the case of adolescents, substance use is a consequence of being guided by the reward system, while their capacity to reason and make decisions is still limited, as a result of the incomplete development of the prefrontal cortex (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014, p. 6). Thus, regardless of whether smoking or alcohol and drug use are motivated by the desire to be accepted by the group of friends, to feel good, or to experience new things, the adolescent seeks to amplify his pleasure (fulfilling the need to belong, inducing euphoria, satisfying curiosity, etc.) and to avoid punishment (rejection from friends, monotony, feelings of sadness, guilt, etc.) (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014, pp. 16, 6). It also was observed that most of the time, drug users undervalue themselves or become powerless, present the inferiority complex, due to negative experiences, such as: convictions, problems in childhood and adolescence, socio-economic problems, to which is added the desire to imitate friends (Baciu, 2019).

Pathological gambling (ludomania) is discussed in connection with substance use, as this behavioral pattern was found to activate reward systems similar to those that are involved in drug abuse (APA, 2013/2016, p. 481). Moreover, the connection between the two is not only one of a parallel nature, but also of a causal nature, given that among the psychiatric consequences of pathological gambling are substance use disorders (Fong, 2005).

In both substance use and ludomania, some of the diagnostic criteria refer to the individual’s inability to control that behavior, despite his intention and the efforts made (APA, 2013/2016, pp. 483 585). In such cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy, short-term treatment models, and pharmacological interventions have proven their usefulness (Jazaeri & Habil, 2012).

Aggressiveness, victim experience – low self-control

Aggressiveness usually appears as a consequence of a high level of anger, doubled by the limited ability to control the behavioral reaction triggered in response to this emotion (Ekman, 2003/2019, pp. 194-195). However, aggressiveness can also be of an instrumental nature, aiming to achieve some material gains (Worchel, Cooper, & Goethals, 1991, as cited in Mitrofan, 1996, p. 435). Mitrofan (1996) also distinguishes between two types of aggressiveness, depending on the form in which it manifests itself: violent aggression and nonviolent aggression.

As some of the analyzed studies have shown, adolescents can manifest themselves aggressively in different social contexts, such as romantic encounters, intimate relationships, gang, school, but also in the relationship with the self (Chapple & Hope, 2003; Gover, Jennings, Tomsich, Park, & Rennison, 2011; Beckmann, Bergmann, Schneegans, & Baier, 2019; Chang et al., 2018; Finkel, DeWall, Slotter, Oaten, & Foshee, 2009; Huang et al., 2017). In turn, aggressors can become victims, and the violence manifested and suffered can take various forms, such as physical violence and psychological violence (Gover et al., 2011). It should be noted, however, that the co-occurrence of low self-control and victim experience is contributed by both specific environmental factors, i.e. the particular experiences of a person (37%), as well as genetic factors (63%) (Boutwell et al., 2013).

Aggression can be adaptive, appearing as a natural consequence of evolution, in order to protect the individual, the group, individual objectives, etc. (Connor, 2002, as cited in Connor et al., 2019), but also can become maladaptive, such as impulsive aggression (Connor et al., 2019). In the treatment of maladaptive aggression, psychosocial interventions and medication treatments are recommended (Center for Education and Research on Mental Health Therapeutics, Rutgers University, 2010; Connor et al., 2019).

Delinquency – low self-control

Delinquency was defined as a behavior outside the bounds of the law, usually carried out by a young person, who is not yet considered an adult, and to whom a different punishment is applied to that of adult offenders (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, para. 1). Early-onset antisocial behavior (around the age of 11) is more likely to lead to chronic juvenile delinquency during adolescence, while antisocial behavior with onset after puberty usually involves less serious offenses, being considered a temporary response to the changes characteristic of adolescence (Schulenberg & Zarrett, 2006, as cited in Papalia et al., 1978/2010, p. 414).

It is important to mention that most cases of juvenile delinquency do not evolve towards a criminal trajectory in adulthood, and most of the time, this is due to the subsequent psycho-socio-economic development of the person (Kosterman, Graham, Hawkins, Catalano, & Herrenkohl, 2001, as cited in Papalia et al., 1978/2010, p. 416; Moffitt, 1993, as cited in Papalia et al., 1978/2010, p. 416; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, para. 2). Actually, it was found that labeling young people as potential delinquents encouraged them to commit crimes (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, para. 4).

Given that the basis of juvenile delinquency is built in early childhood, intervention should begin in the same period of development (Papalia et al., 1978/2010, p. 416). Programs from early childhood need to be accompanied by programs carried out during adolescence. In this regard, rather than being separated from the rest of their peers, it is recommended that adolescents at risk of delinquency participate in activities together with their counterparts who do not pose such a risk, in order to avoid companionship between adolescents with antisocial conduct (Dodge, Dishion, & Lansford, 2006, pp. 10-11).

Risk sexual behaviors – low self-control

Risky sexual behaviors associated with a low level of self-control were unprotected sex, having sexual relations with numerous partners, and the early onset of sexual activity (MacKellar et al., 2000; Moilanen & Manuel, 2018; Hernandez & Diclemente, 1992; Quinn & Fromme, 2010; Moilanen, 2015; Kogan et al., 2013).

In the USA, while the number of high school students who have already had sex with at least four partners is on a downward trajectory, the percentage of those who did not use a condom during the last sexual intercourse has remained high over the past decade (over 40%) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). In Europe, although the percentage of 15-year-olds who had sexual intercourse decreased to 19% in 2018 compared to 21% in 2014, only 61% of them used a condom at the last sexual intercourse, suggesting a decrease of one percent compared to 2014 (World Health Organization [WHO] Regional Office for Europe, 2020, pp. 76-77).

Training adolescents about the dangers of these practices is therefore becoming a priority. As they go through a period of sexual exploration, adolescents should benefit from education and counseling classes on this topic.

Gender differences

Regarding the period between 2013-2019, the average of girls who did not use a condom at the last sexual intercourse tends to be higher than that of boys, both among students in grades 9-12 in the USA and among 15-year-olds in Europe (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.; WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2020, p. 77). However, the association between low self-control and low condom use is questionable from a gender perspective. While the study of Moilanen and Manuel (2018) did not reveal gender differences in the correlation between low self-control and low condom use, results obtained by MacKellar et al. (2000) showed that low self-control was associated with condom non-use only in boys. Regarding alcohol consumption, the results obtained by Piquero et al. (2002) showed that boys in the USA (university students) were more likely to engage in binge drinking than girls. Nevertheless, these results also showed that while self-control was a predictor of binge drinking (in boys and girls) and alcohol-related behaviors (only in girls), however, in the relationship between binge drinking and alcohol-related behaviors, the effect of self-control was insignificant, the result being similar for both gender groups. For this reason, it was recommended to consider some situational factors.

Cultural differences

The research conducted by Ellis et al. (2015) revealed that criminal activity associated with low self-control was supported more strongly by USA data and weaker by those from Malaysia. Also relevant is the example of Duell et al.’s (2016) research, which showed that low self-control correlated with risk-taking only for participants in Western countries, not for those from Asia. It is known that the USA ranks 1st in terms of the degree of individualism in society, followed by Anglo World and countries in northern and northwestern Europe, while the countries of Asia are characterized by a collectivist culture (IBM Database Plus Extensions, n.d., as cited in Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010, pp. 95-97). Thus, these data may indicate the role that collectivist cultures have in keeping adolescents away from potential dangers. While adolescents in countries with an individualistic ideology may be more likely to meet their own needs, without taking into account the needs of others (an aspect revealed by the strong relationship between reduced self-control and crime), those in states with a collectivist social perspective may be likely to put the common good before the individual one.

However, the association of substance use with low self-control did not depend on cultural peculiarities, being observed both in the USA and in countries different from those on the American continent: the Netherlands, China, Australia, Italy. The fact that this behavior was found to be so widespread raises the issue of the availability and attractiveness that alcohol, tobacco, and other types of drugs have among adolescents. Also, the desire to be accepted and to integrate into the group of friends (an essential part of the psychosocial development during adolescence) (Papalia et al., 1978/2010, p. 411), is another reason why some adolescents consume these substances (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014, p. 16).

Conclusions

This paper highlighted the main categories of risky behaviors with which the diminished levels of self-control were associated: substance use, aggressive manifestations, delinquency, risky sexual behaviors, gambling, and other risky behaviors. Another important conclusion is that in the relationship between self-control and such behaviors, moderating and mediating variables intervened in some cases. These findings can contribute to the design of intervention programs at both individual and group level, in order to develop self-control among adolescents, emphasizing the need to address behavioral self-regulation. The importance of such programs is supported by results such as those obtained by Allemand, Job, and Mroczek (2019) in a longitudinal study involving 1527 participants. Participants were assessed annually for their level of self-control, between 12-16 years of age, and love and work outcomes (dependent variables) were assessed at age 35. It was found that regardless of the level of self-control achieved by the participants in early adolescence, the development of self-control during adolescence led to better satisfaction in terms of intimate relationships and professional life.

Parents can have a crucial role in the harmonious transition of adolescents to adulthood. A longitudinal research in which 215 families were evaluated highlighted the role of maternal coaching of emotions in reducing children’s externalizing behavior (Shortt, Stoolmiller, Smith-Shine, Eddy, & Sheeber, 2010). At Time 1 (T1), the oldest of the siblings had an average age of 13.33 years, and the youngest 10.87 years. The next evaluation took place after about three years. Shortt et al. (2010) found based on longitudinal assessments that anger coaching by mothers was associated with diminished externalizing behaviors for younger siblings. Therefore, the intervention of parents in training children in the direction of managing emotions from an early age (from preadolescence or early adolescence) can have a high impact on the development of their behavioral self-regulation, with the chance of avoiding their involvement in risky behaviors during adolescence.

However, the family’s efforts need to be continued in school. The slogans in the campaigns to prevent and reduce risky behaviors addressed to secondary and high school students call for their self-control capacity. Some examples in this regard of some educational institutions in Romania are the following: „Say NO to drugs!” (Universitatea „Aurel Vlaicu” din Arad [Aurel Vlaicu University of Arad], 2019), „Say NO to violence in school!” (Inspectoratul de Poliție al Județului Olt [Olt County Police Inspectorate (I.P.J. Olt)], 2019). However, it is important for teenagers to be taught how to resist temptation. According to the national legislation, students in Romania should benefit, at least semesterly, from educational programs aimed at health, development of psycho-emotional abilities, social and interpersonal skills (Parlamentul României [Romanian Parliament], 2004/2014). It is essential that in such sessions, students learn behavior control strategies in relation to themselves and others: how to react when challenged to beat by other colleagues, to who to turn to when they identify suicidal thoughts or the need to consume alcohol or drugs, etc.

Taking into account the social and economic impact generated by the behaviors manifested as a result of the limited capacity of some adolescents to self-control, it is recommended to speed up the adoption of the necessary measures for the development of emotional and behavioral self-control, through intervention programs adapted to the age and the degree of understanding of the beneficiaries.

It should be noted that no study was identified regarding low self-control and associated risk behaviors involving quantitative or qualitative field data collected from among the population of adolescents in Romania during the analyzed period. Therefore, this is a topic that should be addressed in future research.

Limits

The range of potentially risky behaviors involving a low level of self-control could be broader compared to that obtained by carrying out this systematic review, as each of the analyzed studies focused on specific variables (e.g. delinquency, aggressiveness, substance use, etc.). For example, Motie, Heidari, and Sadeghi (2012), in a study conducted on 250 students in the first year of high school in Iran, showed that metacognitive self-regulation and effort regulation correlated negatively with academic procrastination. Another behavioral model encountered during adolescence is staying awake until late at night (Dörner, Plog, Teller, & Wendt, 1978/2014). Kadzikowska-Wrzosek (2018) found from research on 304 students in two universities in Poland, aged between 18 and 38, that bedtime procrastination can be explained by reduced self-regulation skills.

In other cases, low self-control, as a one-dimensional variable, could not indicate the variance of certain behaviors, as was the case with the investigation conducted by Conner, Stein, and Longshore (2009), in which criminal behaviors and drug use were determined by risk-seeking and volatile temperament, but not by global self-control.

Also, moderation and mediation relationships were only considered in the case of those studies that explicitly mentioned the role of each variable included in the equation. Thus, in the event of the development of prevention or intervention programs, it is necessary to take into account the existence of some additional variables, which may influence the link between the level of self-control and risky behaviors. It is therefore noted that further research in this direction is needed.

Table 3

Presentation of studies included in the systematic analysis, focusing on the risk behaviors to which adolescents with low levels of self-control are exposed (to see table 3, please click here)

Acknowledgments

This study is part of the doctoral research project entitled “Adolescents and Youth in Educational and Detention Centers: Personality Dimensions and Psychological Factors”, PhD. Student Flavia-Elena Ciurbea, coordinated by PhD. Cornelia Rada, at the School of Advanced Studies of the Romanian Academy, “Constantin Rădulescu-Motru” Institute of Philosophy and Psychology, Department of Psychology, Romanian Academy, Bucharest, Romania.

A summary of this paper was presented at the online international conference: Individual, family, society – contemporary challenges, fourth edition, 6 to 7 october 2021, Bucharest, Romania and published in the journal Studii şi Cercetări de Antropologie, No. 7/2021.

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