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The Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study (E-Risk)

Principal Investigator: Professor Terrie Moffitt

Institution: King’s College London


King’s College London hosts the MRC-funded Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study (E-Risk), a behavioural genetics studies which collected individual-level data on more than 1000 UK twin pairs at ages 5 (in 2000), 7 (in 2002) and 12 (in 2007) to investigate how genetic and environmental factors shape children's disruptive behaviour. The SCoPiC Network provided the E-Rick Study with funding for a detailed neighbourhood survey to gather information about the social contexts (e.g., victimization, collective efficacy, social cohesion, formal and informal social control) which characterize the residential environments of E-Risk participants. This survey added an environmental-level dimension to this important study, allowing it to investigate multi-level effects and the interaction between individual characteristics (including genetic factors) and environmental experiences. This has enriched the cutting-edge gene-environment interaction research undertaken at this research site.

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Study Design

The E-Risk sample was drawn from a 1994-1995 birth register of twins born in England and Wales and included 1116 families with same-sex twins. Assessment at each wave (ages 5, 7 and 12) involved home visits with parents and participants and teacher questionnaires.

Among twin studies in the USA, UK, or Australia the E-risk study is special because it measured an extensive array of environmental risk constructs related to risk for future delinquency in order to shed light on what factors in the home, family, school and neighbourhood promote children's aggression. Measures of environmental context include:

  • OFSTED data for participants’ schools
  • UK census data for each family's postcode
  • Home visitors' ratings using the HOME observational schedule
  • Mothers' reports of partner abuse
  • A Life History Calendar of life events and changing family structure
  • Numerous poverty indicators
  • Child nutrition
  • Parenting skills and practices
  • Social support for parenting
  • Mothers' expressed emotions
  • Parents' offending histories
  • Children's experience of abuse or harm
  • Mothers' depression and substance abuse.
  • The SCoPiC Neighbourhood Study

The Neighbourhood Survey was developed in collaboration with Robert Sampson, building upon the Chicago Neighborhoods Project. This E-Risk supplemental study was implemented in 2003, when participants were 10 years old. It involved administration of questionnaires to 15 households in each subject’s postcode, as well as collection of census data. Questionnaires covered topics such as victimization, collective efficacy, social cohesion and social control, which are thought to influence children’s opportunities to learn antisocial behaviours and engage in delinquency.

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Study Objectives

The SCoPiC Neighbourhood Study has two aims: 

  • To test if neighbourhood characteristics are related to children's problem behaviours via their influence on child development
  • To test if neighbourhood characteristics are related to children's problem behaviours because they reflect the genetically-influenced risk characteristics of families who live in them

To test these hypotheses, the study plans to:

  • Analyse links between neighbourhood characteristics (for example, crime-victimisation and stress-health)
  • Compare data collected through the Neighbourhood Study with data collected through other E-Risk measures (for example, data on food insecurity and child maltreatment)
  • Enter neighbourhood constructs as measured variables in a twin ACE model
  • Explore peer effects at the neighbourhood level
  • Test the interaction between neighbourhood constructs and specific genes

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Select Findings

Analyses proceeded in three steps.

  • The developmental course of antisocial behaviour was mapped using latent growth curve modelling
  • The relationship was tested between neighbourhood collective efficacy and initial levels of antisocial behaviour and/or change in antisocial behaviour between the ages of 5 and 10
  • The influence of collective efficacy on children’s development was evaluated in deprived versus affluent neighbourhoods to test whether or not collective efficacy had a protective effect on children who grow up deprived

Although previous findings show that deprived neighbourhoods can be harmful places for children to grow up, findings from this study suggest that some deprived may contain important assets (such as collective efficacy) which may have a protective effect on children’s antisocial behaviour; strong neighbourhood collective efficacy can protect children who are growing up in poverty from becoming involved in delinquency and aggression at a young age.

Results from this study increase our knowledge about the relationship between neighbourhood-level factors and children’s antisocial behaviour through these key findings:

  • Neighbourhood collective efficacy is a robust predictor of children’s antisocial behaviour at school entry

Children in neighbourhoods with high levels of collective efficacy hves lower levels of antisocial behaviour at school entry. The E-Risk study is the first study to document a relationship between independent assessments of collective efficacy and antisocial behaviour in childhood.

Children’s antisocial behaviour also declined more quickly in neighbourhood with higher levels of collective efficacy. However, this finding did not hold once neighbourhood structural factors (e.g., deprivation) were considered. This suggests that family-level factors (e.g., child abuse, family socioeconomic status, exposure to domestic violence, etc.) may be more relevant to the decline in children’s antisocial behaviour during this period of development. It will be important, however, to test whether the relationship between neighbourhood collective efficacy and antisocial behaviour is more significant during adolescent, when neighbourhood factors may play a more influential role in developmental change.

  • Children growing up in deprived versus affluent neighbourhoods follow a different developmental course of antisocial behaviour

Children living in deprived neighbourhood had higher levels of antisocial behaviour than children living in affluent areas at school entry and did not demonstrate the same rapid decline in antisocial behaviour between ages 5 and 10. The E-Risk may be the first study to demonstrate how the developmental course of antisocial behaviour may be affected by differential exposure to deprived and affluent neighbourhood contexts during childhood. The study’s findings indicate that neighbourhood deprivation may be an important indicator of which children will follow a persistent developmental trajectory, providing a new impetus for studying the mechanisms through with neighbourhood characteristics affect children’s development.

  • Neighbourhood-level collective efficacy is related to children’s antisocial behaviour only in deprived neighbourhoods

Neighbourhood collective efficacy may work to protect children growing up in deprivation. The study found that within deprived neighbourhoods, collective efficacy was related to lower levels of antisocial behaviour among children at school entry; this effect was not found for the antisocial behaviour of children growing up in affluent neighbourhoods. Given the significant number of children influenced by poverty, this highlights a pressing need to identify child, family and neighbourhood-level factors with the potential to improve outcomes for children growing up in deprivation.

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Implications for policy and prevention

The majority of interventions for children’s antisocial behaviour target the child and/or the family, paying relatively little attention to neighbourhood contexts. Findings from the SCoPiC Neighbourhood Study suggest that community affluence and community-level social processes (namely, collective efficacy) may serve as protective factors for children as they enter school. Such community characteristics may be prime candidates for population-level intervention efforts. Potential strategies for building an enhancing collective efficacy within communities have been suggested, including:

  • Bolstering participation in voluntary organizations to develop better trust and social relationships
  • Building community social organizations such as local civic organizations and clubs
  • Creating ‘community health profiles’ which allow communities to monitor their well being over time

Community-level interventions are rarely tried in the area of antisocial behaviour but may be more cost-effective and pragmatic than the difficult prospects of individual intervention.

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