Connecting Ethnic Identity and Substance Use Risk among Mexican-Origin 5th Graders:
Stephen S. Kulis, PhD, Arizona State University, Flavio Francisco Marsiglia, PhD, Arizona State University, and Ashley Crossman, PhD, Arizona State University.
The link between ethnic identity and substance use has been difficult to establish, with inconsistent findings. This study examines the connection between ethnic identity and substance use in a very young sample—pre-adolescents (10 and 11 year olds)—in the early stages of ethnic identity formation. Ethnic identity is conceptualized as the degree to which individuals identify with their ethnic group and are knowledgeable of and participate in their culture and its traditions. Ethnic identity is a salient part of the acculturation process for immigrants and their descendents as they adjust culturally, socially and psychologically to their new society. Unlike most prior studies, we examine the impact of ethnic identity on substance use longitudinally, among children entering a developmental period where substance use typically begins. We analyze whether strong ethnic identification with the culture of origin protects pre-adolescents of Mexican heritage against the adoption of substance use behaviors and pro-drug attitudes, whether there are gender differences in the protective effects of ethnic identity, and whether these protective effects vary with time spent in the United States. Data came from 5th grade students in 32 elementary schools in a large southwestern city whose parents gave active consent for their children to participate. We utilize longitudinal data from surveys administered in classrooms in early Fall 2004 and again in Spring 2005. Analysis is restricted to a sub-sample of 1,312 students who self-reported their ethnic identity as “Mexican,” “Mexican-American,” or “Chicano.” Ethnic identity is measured using a scale based on Phinney's (1992) Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure. We employ mixed models (SAS Proc Mixed) that account for school-level clustering of the data to predict six-month changes in last 30 day alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use (frequency and amount), as well as nine measures of pro-substance use norms and attitudes. The results indicate that a stronger sense of ethnic identity with their Mexican heritage curbs the adoption of substance use behaviors and attitudes of 5th grade boys, but not girls. Ethnic identity predicts subsequent short-term (6-month) changes in the risk of substance use during the pre-adolescent developmental period when substance use initiation rates are of particular concern. Strong ethnic identity appears to lower these boys' risk of initiating or increasing their use of substances, as well as their adoption of pro-drug norms and attitudes. Interaction tests demonstrated that this protective effect is especially pronounced among Mexican heritage boys who have lived in the United States the longest. We discuss how, with more time in the U.S., youth may become increasingly exposed to substance use as they acculturate to U.S. society and access wider social networks. Strong ethnic identification may thus provide more decisive protection for the youth most vulnerable to substance use opportunities. The lack of parallel findings for girls may reflect cultural, social and developmental differences with boys from the same ethnic background. Regardless of their level of ethnic identification, pre-adolescent girls of Mexican heritage may be subjected to stricter cultural norms discouraging substance use, and more restrictions on their interactions with peers.