Social connectedness and substance use impacts weapon carrying behavior among youth

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Public health researchers have found that youth are less likely to carry a weapon if they experience a strong sense of social cohesion—in other words social connectedness—people willing to help neighbors, people getting along well, people sharing the same beliefs about right and wrong and people solving community problems.

USF College of Public Health alumna Dr. Yingwei Yang along with Dr. Abraham Salinas-Miranda, associate director of the COPH’s Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health and director of the Harrell Center for the Study of Family Violence, and COPH professors Dr. Karen Liller, director of the Activist Lab and Dr. Martha Coulter were part of the research team whose article “Understanding Weapon Carrying Behaviors of Youth in Florida Schools Using Structural Equation Modeling,” has been published in the journal of Violence and Gender.  

(Photo source: Pixabay)

Using data from a county-wide community survey conducted among more than 26,000 youths attending public middle and high schools in Hillsborough County, Fla., Yang and the research team look at both the risk and protective factors influencing whether a youth decides to carry a weapon.  

Salinas-Miranda said they used the socio-ecological model as the theoretical framework and structural equation modeling as the analytical method to examine what impact community factors (neighborhood problems and social cohesion), family factors (adult caring relationships at home) and individual factors (substance abuse), had on weapon carrying at school.

“Testing theoretical frameworks that can inform action to address youth violence is very important,” he said. “Notably, we were the first to test this conceptual of the interlinked effects of the community and family contexts on youth reported behaviors about carrying weapons.”

They found that social connectedness, measured as neighborhood social cohesion, had a strong positive association with adult caring relationship and served as a protective factor, while substance use became a strong risk factor for youth.

Dr. Yingwei Yang presents findings at USF Health Research Day. (Photo courtesy of Yang)

They conclude that programmatic efforts to address the direct and indirect associations of multilevel factors related to weapon carrying need to be considered in the development, implementation, and evaluation of evidenced-based violence prevention programs.

“As we can see of late, violence is an extremely critical issue in public health,” said Liller. “We know now that violence is a leading cause of death of children and young adults. Research such as this that brings together behavior and the environment when it comes to weapon carrying is extremely valuable in terms of the development, implementation, and evaluation of targeted prevention programs.”

Yang said she hopes this research provides more insight into the complexity of factors influencing a youth’s decisions to carry a weapon. “Besides the implications for the prevention of weapon carrying behaviors, this research also provides insights on how to operationalize the widely used socio-ecological model and assess the interrelationships among community, family, and individual factors,” she said. “This paper meant a lot to me since it was my first time to apply an advanced statistical method that I learned from faculty in COPH into practice and dissemination. I really appreciate the guidance and support from Drs. Salinas, Liller, and Coulter.”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health