Exploration of the Prevalence and Correlates of Substance Use among Sheltered Adolescents in South Korea

By Park, Sookyung; Kim, Hae Sung et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Exploration of the Prevalence and Correlates of Substance Use among Sheltered Adolescents in South Korea


Park, Sookyung, Kim, Hae Sung, Kim, Haeryun, Sung, Kgu-taik, Adolescence


During the past 30 years, South Korea has undergone dynamic social changes in the process of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Traditionally, the family and the school have played key roles in caring for and educating adolescents. However, the nation is facing critical challenges. Family disorganization and income disparity are becoming major social issues. The family and the school are no longer exerting a positive influence as a social security network (National Youth Commission, 2005). In the process of unprecedented social change, a growing number of Korean adolescents have been experiencing various problems, such as poverty, school dropout, runaway, exposure to violence, delinquency, substance use, criminal activities, and prostitution. These problems have beeome more serious, particularly among runaway adoleseents (Korea Youth Shelter Association, 2005).

In 2004, an estimated 304,000 adolescents in South Korea ran away from home. Although 70% of them returned, the remaining 30% used shelter services or stayed on the street. To respond to the needs of these adolescents in trouble, the first adolescent shelter was opened in Seoul in 1992. Since then, the number of shelters has been steadily increasing, today there are 46 shelters throughout the country (National Youth Commission, 2005).

Substance use among runaway and homeless adolescents is prevalent in other countries as well (Kipke, Montgomery, & Mackenzie; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999; Votta & Mamion, 2003; Johnson, Whitbeck, & Hoyt, 2005). These adolescents tend to use substances earlier and more often than their non-runaway counterparts (Johnson et al., 2005). Similarly, adolescents in shelters use substances more often and in greater quantity than the adolescents in school (Slesnick, Meyers, Meade, & Segelken, 2000).

South Korean at-risk adolescents are found to use substances much like their counterparts in Western nations (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999; Johnston, OMalley, & Bachman, 2002). According to national data compiled by the National Youth Commission, 70.5% of middle and high school students had used alcohol, 29.2% smoked cigarettes, and 10.3% used other drugs (National Youth Commission, 2002). In contrast, the figures for runaway and homeless adolescents are much higher: 90.6% used alcohol, 84.9% smoked cigarettes, 22.4% used nalbuphine hydrochloride, 9.2% amphetamines, 7.8% benzodiazepine, and 8% mariuana and philopon. This data indicates how serious substance use is among both non-runaway adolescents and runaway adolescents in South Korea, particularly the latter.

Because runaway and homeless adolescents tend to be caught up in various problems such as being out of school, violence, substance use, gang activity, and prostitution, early intervention is important. Data from the Korea Youth Shelter Association (2005) in fact, indicates the seriousness of their problem: 48.2% of adolescents using shelter services used alcohol and smoked cigarettes, 37% committed crimes of theft and violence, and 3.4% were involved in prostitution.

Despite the fact that substance abuse by adolescents in shelters is an increasingly serious issue, so far in South Korea, few studies have investigated its prevalence and the risk factors involved. Although there are some studies regarding substance use among adolescents in the country, most have focused only on alcohol consumption by high school students. The present study sought to add to the body of information on substance use by exploring the problems presented by adolescents living in shelters in South Korea.

Risk Factors Associated with Substance Use

Adolescence is a stressful period for many young people since it is a time of physical, psychological, and social change. It has been found that adolescents from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments tend to use substances frequently in order to reduce stress.

Previous studies conducted in the West have reported on the risk factors. …

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