The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship of contextual social stressors and genetic influences with precursors of alcohol use in African-American adolescents. Youth who have experienced multiple stressors may exhibit externalizing behaviors and substance use behaviors as coping responses (Copeland-Linder et al., 2001). An ecological framework (Chartier et al., 2017) was used to identify predictors of alcohol-use risk behaviors for African-American adolescents at the individual, social network, and community levels.
Data were from 362 African-American adolescents (mean age=16.25; 53.3% female) in the Gene, Environment, Neighborhood Interaction (GENI) study. Our sample included participants with available genetic and census-level data. Because most (69.1%) participants never consumed alcohol, we used externalizing behaviors (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2001) as our dependent variable—a precursor to later drinking behaviors (Alati et al., 2005). Our model included predictor variables at 3 levels: (1) at the individual level, a polygenic risk score for alcohol dependence (using GWAS weights from Gelernter et al., 2013); (2) at the social network level, adolescents’ experiences of racial discrimination in daily life (Landrine & Klonoff, 1996) and family life stressors (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994); and (3) at the community level, adolescents’ reports of neighborhood violence and neighborhood disorder (Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 2000) and a census-tract measure of low socioeconomic status (Byck et al., 2015). Generalized estimating equation (GEE) models accommodated for family and census-tract clustering and controlled for socio-demographics and population stratification. We estimated our model, first, in the full study sample and, second, in a subsample of adolescents who reported drinking alcohol and have reported unstandardized coefficients below.
In the full sample, adolescents who reported more stress as a result of racial discrimination experiences (B=0.348, p=.024) and greater exposure to neighborhood violence (B=1.283, p<.001) had more externalizing. Similarly, in the subsample of drinkers, exposure to neighborhood violence (B=1.819, p<.001) as well as family life stressors (B=0.793, p=.032) were positively associated with externalizing behaviors. The genetic risk score (B=277.611, p=.001) was associated with externalizing behaviors in the subsample of drinkers only. Follow up analyses found no statistically significant interaction effects between the genetic risk score and social stress variables.
Conclusions and Implications
The current study evaluates predictors of alcohol-related behaviors among African-American youth by examining genetic influences at the individual level and social stressors at two higher-order levels. Exposure to social stressors at the social network (family and everyday racial discrimination) and neighborhood (violence) levels were generally associated with externalizing behaviors, while genetic liability only predicted externalizing in individuals who already initiated drinking. Investigating predictors on various ecological levels could be useful for social workers developing prevention strategies for early alcohol-related behaviors. Program activities at the individual level could include screening for alcohol use and family history of alcohol problems and at the community level could seek to address neighborhood violence. Further research using larger study samples may be needed to evaluate interactive relationships between genetic influences and social stressors.