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01.12.2015 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2016 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2016

What is positive youth development and how might it reduce substance use and violence? A systematic review and synthesis of theoretical literature

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2016
Chris Bonell, Kate Hinds, Kelly Dickson, James Thomas, Adam Fletcher, Simon Murphy, G. J. Melendez-Torres, Carys Bonell, Rona Campbell
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​s12889-016-2817-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

ChB designed and directed the review, contributed to all stages and drafted the manuscript. KH contributed to screening, quality assessment and synthesis and drafting. KD managed the review and contributed to design and drafting. JT, AF, SM, GJMT and RC contributed to the design of the review, methods of synthesis and drafting. CaB commented on the synthesis and contributed to drafting. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.



Preventing adolescent substance use and youth violence are public health priorities. Positive youth development interventions are widely deployed often with the aim of preventing both. However, the theorised mechanisms by which PYD is intended to reduce substance use and violence are not clear and existing evaluated interventions are under-theorised. Using innovative methods, we systematically searched for and synthesised published theoretical literature describing what is meant by positive youth development and how it might reduce substance use and violence, as part of a broader systematic review examining process and outcomes of PYD interventions.


We searched 19 electronic databases, review topic websites, and contacted experts between October 2013 and January 2014. We included studies written in English, published since 1985 that reported a theory of change for positive youth development focused on prevention of smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use or violence in out-of-school settings. Studies were independently coded and quality-assessed by two reviewers.


We identified 16 studies that met our inclusion criteria. Our synthesis suggests that positive youth development aims to provide youth with affective relationships and diverse experiences which enable their development of intentional self-regulation and multiple positive assets. These in turn buffer against or compensate for involvement in substance use and violence. Existing literature is not clear on how intentional self-regulation is developed and which specific positive assets buffer against substance use or violence.


Our synthesis provides: an example of a rigorous systematic synthesis of theory literature innovatively applying methods of qualitative synthesis to theoretical literature; a clearer understanding of how PYD might reduce substance use and violence to inform future interventions and empirical evaluations.
Additional file 1: Search on Psycinfo (EBSCO) 7/11/2013. (DOCX 15 kb)
Additional file 2: PRISMA checklist. (DOCX 22 kb)
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