Neighborhood mediated effects


Dr. Rachel Dwyer, Sociology
Rank at time of award: Assistant Professor



Does the rhythm of children's everyday lives vary in different community contexts and is this variation associated with children's physical and psychological well-being? The social organization of neighborhoods is strongly associated with negative health outcomes among children, such as obesity and anxiety and higher engagement in risky behaviors (Robert 1999; Leventhal and Brooks­ Gunn 2000; Earls and Carlson 2001; Cagney and Browning 2004; Browning et a l2004). How children spend their time is also associated with negative health outcomes, with lower time in active leisure linked with overweight, depression, and reduced physical and mental functioning (Curtin, Randolph, and Scott 2006; Hofferth and Sandberg 2001; National Center for Health Statistics 2005). Although neighborhood effects and time use have each been shown to significantly affect children's health separately, there has been almost no research connecting the two. Yet neighborhood effects on children's time use are often proposed to be a key mechanism in producing the observed variability in health outcomes between places.
We propose to advance understanding of the influence of neighborhood context on children's health by studying time use as a mechanism that links place level processes to individual outcomes, using two waves of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics' Child Development Supplement (PSID­ CDS). The innovation of our study is to assess empirically the pathways between neighborhood contexts, time use, and children's outcomes implicit in prior research. Social disorder may lead both children and parents to prefer different activities in disadvantaged versus advantaged settings, and these preferences may be reinforced by the physical and social ecology of neighborhoods. Most importantly, children in disadvantaged neighborhoods are typically expected to have fewer opportunities for active play and to spend more time inside engaged in sedentary activities such as watching TV. Lower activity levels encourage obesity and related health problems, and because of the low quality housing prevalent in disadvantaged neighborhoods, more time indoors for poor kids increases exposure to allergens and toxins.
Understanding how neighborhood characteristics, children's time use, and children's health outcomes are connected is a vital social issue. Place level factors like neighborhood economic vitality, social ties between residents, and levels of social disorder explain variability in numerous measures of well-being above and beyond individual characteristics like socioeconomic status and family structure (Sampson et al 1999). Neighborhood context is particularly important for health, especially for children whose passage through developmental stages is profoundly shaped by their social setting (Brooks-Gunn et al1993; Furstenberg and Hughes 1997; Wen et al 2003). Children living in poor neighborhoods are particularly likely to develop disorders which must be managed across the entire life course, such as obesity, asthma, and mental health issues, and as they age to adolescence are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including early sexual activity, with similar potential for long-term health consequences, such as serious injury, disease, or pregnancy (Robert 1999; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000; Earls and Carlson 2001; Cagney and Browning 2004; Browning et al 2004). Children who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods may also experience higher levels of stress-induced physical and mental disorders resulting from exposure to neighborhood disorder (Hill, Ross, and Angel 2005). Yet there is still much work to be done to understand the contribution of neighborhood effects to children's health, and it is especially important to identify the mechanisms that link the higher order effects to individual outcomes.
Time use may be an important mechanism which links neighborhood effects and individual outcomes. Time expenditures are quantifiable measures of children's exposure to different environments and experiences (Hofferth and Sandberg 2001; Larson and Verma 1999). Because of the constraints of the 24-hour day, time is a limited resource, with investments in certain activities displacing investments in other, perhaps more beneficial, activities. Children's time use thus reflects varied opportunities to develop physical, mental, and social competencies. On average, children spend about 51 hours per week in leisure activities, with about half of this time devoted to unstructured play and watching television and one-fifth of the time devoted to sports, visiting with friends and family, and church activities (Hofferth and Sandberg 2001). Participating in active leisure, such as organized sports, calls forth more engagement, initiative, and self-regulation than time spent in passive leisure, such as watching television (Larson and Verma 1999).
How children spend their time varies by age, gender, race-ethnicity, socioeconomic status and family characteristics (Bianchi and Robinson 1997; Hofferth and Sandberg 2001; Lareau 2000; Larson and Verma 1999). Black children, those of lower socioeconomic status (SES), and children living with a lone parent spend less time participating in sports and club activities and more time watching television. Variation in health outcomes among children is associated with the same characteristics that affect time use: Poor health outcomes are more common among minority children and lower SES children than white and higher SES children (NCHS 2005). Race-ethnicity and social class are also strongly correlated with greater risk of living in disadvantaged neighborhood contexts. The consistent differences by race-ethnicity and social class in children's time use beg the question of whether differences in health outcomes are due to individual characteristics or instead stem from the selection of children into different neighborhoods contexts. It is likely that differences in leisure activities correlated with individual factors reflect how neighborhoods shape and constrain activities in addition to how time use is affected by child and parental preferences and characteristics.
The major theoretical perspectives on neighborhood effects suggest that social disorder, the local ecology, and a lack of social connections, or "collective efficacy" among neighbors result in different activity patterns for children in poor compared to affluent neighborhoods.  We propose to use a unique dataset to test these propositions and systematically assess how children's time use actually varies between neighborhoods in ways consequential for health.