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Julia Hernandez, Carolyn M. Barry, Ph.D., Beth A. Kotchick, Ph.D., Rachel L. Grover, Ph.D.

Floundering or Flourishing College Students: The Role of Substance Use and Prosocial Involvement on Psychological Adjustment

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For most American residential college students, the college experience, consists of a decrease in direct parental supervision and the absence of responsible adult roles; resulting in their pursuit of novel and intense experiences more freely as stipulated (Arnett, 2005). It is normative for them to engage in high levels of prosocial behaviors and moderate levels of risk behaviors (Nelson et al., 2007; Quinn & Fromme, 2010), which have been related to their levels of psychological adjustment. Emerging adults' self-regulation and self-esteem is in formation during this time of individuation (Alessandri et al., 2009; Kling et al., 1999).  Yet little research has investigated the intersection of these two behaviors on college students' psychological adjustment.  Thus in the current cross-sectional study, we hypothesized that (a) engagement in risk behavior (i.e., substance use) would predict to self-regulation and self-esteem negatively, (b) engagement in prosocial behaviors (i.e., helpfulness toward family, friends, and strangers) would predict self-regulation and self-esteem positively, and (c) prosocial behaviors would moderate the relations between risk behavior and the two self variables.

A religiously and ethnically diverse sample of participants (N = 572) from three public and one religious university completed the following surveys online: a modified version of the Tobacco, Alcohol, Drugs measure in the Add Health Questionnaire (Harris et al., 2009), an adapted version of the VIA Inventory of Strengths: Kindness/Generosity Subscale (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), the Emotional Self-Regulation Subscale (Novak & Clayton, 2001), and the Self Perceptions Profile for College Students: Self Worth Subscale (Neeman & Harter, 1986).

Hierarchical regression analyses were performed on self-regulation and self-esteem: step 1) gender, step 2) risk behavior (RB), step 3) prosocial behavior towards strangers (PBS), friends (PBFr), and family (PBFam; forced entry for steps 1-3), and step 4) RB X PBS, RB X PBFr, and RB X PBFam (forward entry). The analyses revealed that RB negatively predicted self-regulation (β = -.02, p = .002), whereas PBS (β = .12, p = .014) and PBFam (β = .11, p = .045) positively predicted self-regulation. Being a woman (β = .16, p = .003) and PBFam (β = .21, p < .001) both positively predicted self-esteem. Significant interactions were found for RB X PBS on self-regulation (β = -.02, p = .011) and for RB X PBFr on self-esteem (β = -.01, p = .041). The large N, made finding significance easier and also allows for small, perhaps clinically meaningless, effect sizes to appear significant.

To explore these interactions, a series of one-way ANOVAs were conducted on each outcome variable by the particular PB variable for each level of RB. For self-regulation, posthoc analyses suggested that only among those college students who reported low levels of RB (see Figure 1), college students who reported high levels of PBS were likely to report higher levels of self-regulation than were those who reported low levels of PBS. While college students with high PBFr reported higher self-esteem universally, those who reported moderate RB in combination with low PBFr reported significantly higher self-esteem than did those with low or high RB (see Figure 2). Thus, by considering both types of behaviors simultaneously a fuller picture of emerging adults' self-regulation and self-esteem emerge.

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