This study is among the first to examine whether parental perception of risk mediates associations between perceived safety/victimization and parental restriction of their adolescents’ physical activity. The findings demonstrated that for girls only, perceived risk was a significant mediator of associations between perceived road safety and avoidance/defensive behavior, and between each of the following: perceived incivilities, perceived personal safety, victimization, and defensive behavior. Possible reasons for perceived risk being a significant mediator of associations between the above variables for girls, and not for boys, include evidence that boys and girls are socialized differently with regard to risk-taking behavior from an early age and that parents tend to be more protective of daughters than of sons .
On average, boys in our study were subject to lower levels of parental restriction than were girls. It is possible that perceived risk is a more salient consideration in what parents allow their daughters to do, in comparison to sons. Several studies have demonstrated that boys are granted increased autonomy at an earlier age than are girls [7, 22, 23]. Furthermore, an English study reported that parental restriction of independent mobility was more prevalent for adolescent girls than for boys due to fears of molestation or assault . Similar concerns were also expressed by parents of girls in a New Zealand study .
The findings of this study may guide the design of interventions that aim to increase levels of perceived safety and reduce perceptions of risk. Clearly, there is no risk of pedestrian injury and reduced risk of unwelcome approaches by strangers among adolescents whose leisure time is spent within the confines of the home. In order to promote the local neighborhood as a safe venue for adolescents’ physical activity, it is necessary to reduce concerns about road safety, incivilities and lack of personal safety (as all were associated with constrained behavior), and to lower perceptions of risk. To achieve this, interventions may reduce perceived risk by altering the physical environment (for example by implementing traffic calming measures that make residential streets more conducive to physical activity among children and adolescents ), by having well-lit streets to promote perceptions of safety among adolescent girls in particular , and by reducing the presence of physical incivilities such as graffiti and litter that may heighten perceptions of crime .
Alternatively, interventions may focus on reducing perceptions of risk in the context of the existing environment, and our findings suggest that these should target adolescent girls and their parents. Our earlier research found that that having friends living nearby was positively associated with adolescent girls’ walking in their neighborhood . Walking groups for adolescent girls may promote perceptions of safety and encourage social interaction, as well as providing an important source of physical activity for this target group who typically engage in low and declining levels of physical activity [3, 28].
Some limitations of this study, including high levels of education and of employment among parents, may impact the generalizability of the findings. Most respondents were mothers who may perceive risk differently from fathers, as there is evidence that females, compared with males, are socialized to take less risk . It is possible that the reported levels of victimization, perceived risk and constrained behavior in this study may not be typical for all urban areas, and that different results may have been found in rural areas. Future research should investigate associations between these variables in diverse settings including rural areas. Further, perceived risk may be examined from a broader perspective to include other issues that may cause parents to restrict their adolescents’ physical activity within their neighborhood. These issues include bullying  and substance abuse . Investigating potential mediating effects of these and other social and intrapersonal variables may be important, particularly among boys. In addition, further research that explores pathways that connect victimization, perceived risk and constrained behavior is warranted – although very strong mediating effects (> 77%) of perceived risk were present for boys, these pathways were not statistically significant.