Risk Factors Leading to Adolescent Substance Abuse

By Beman, Deane Scott | Adolescence, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Risk Factors Leading to Adolescent Substance Abuse


Beman, Deane Scott, Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

Adolescence is a time of change on biological, cognitive, and social levels. Adolescents are faced with new situations, one of which is the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. They may turn to alcohol and illicit drugs to alleviate the stress associated with change, to fit in with peers, or they may be modeling the behavior of a family member. Whatever the cause of onset, it can lead to increased drug use and other delinquent activities. Knowledge of the risk factors that lead to adolescent substance abuse can foster greater understanding of the total problem.

Review of the Literature

Many studies have been conducted on the prevalence of adolescent substance abuse. Lang (1985) found that more than half of the high school seniors surveyed reported drinking before the tenth grade. Lang also found that 48.7% of high school students could be considered "regular" drinkers, and almost 15% of these students fit the criteria for "heavy" drinking. In a survey of over 16,000 high school seniors, Johnston, Bachman, & O'Malley (1980) found that 93% of those surveyed had tried alcohol at least once in their lives, with 72% reporting use within the past month. The same study also found that 6% of the students used alcohol on a daily basis.

Similar studies have been conducted concerning the use of illicit drugs by adolescents. Among American high school seniors, marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug, followed by stimulants, inhalants, hallucinogens, and cocaine (Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1991). The Wisconsin Study conducted by the Search Institute (1991) found that 34% of high school seniors have used marijuana one or more times in their lives. Johnston, Bachman, & O'Malley (1980) found that 60% of high school seniors reported marijuana use, with 9% admitting that they used marijuana on a daily basis. It was also found that four out of ten high school seniors have used an illicit drug other than marijuana. Johnston (1987) reported that cocaine use is increasing among American high school students, with 17% reporting that they have used the drug at least once.

A number of studies have suggested that there are risk factors which can lead adolescents to the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Johnson et al. (1990) describe three basic categories of risk factors: demographic, social and behavioral. Lang (1985) suggests that individual characteristics of adolescents are also involved in the onset of substance abuse.

Analysis of demographic risk factors suggest that age and gender can predict the course of substance abuse. Several studies have found that males have a higher rate of alcohol and/or illicit drugs use than do females (Johnson et al, 1990; Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1991; Lang, 1985; Thorne & DeBlassie, 1985). Callen (1985) reports that the period of major risk for initiation into alcohol and marijuana use peaks between the ages of 16 and 18, and is completed for the most part by age 20. Callen also reports that the risk of trying other illicit drugs is highest at age 18 and declines by age 21.

Social risk factors involve the influence of the family, peers, and the environment. Many studies suggest that in families where the use of alcohol and other drugs is high, the adolescent is also more likely to become involved (Barrett, 1990; Gorsuch & Butler, 1976, Johnson et al., 1990; Kandel, Kessler, & Margulies, 1978; Lang, 1985). Other studies have found that adolescents from dysfunctional or disturbed families are more likely to become substance abusers (Newcomb & Bentler, 1989; Oetting & Beauvais, 1987; Stern, Northman, & Van Slyck, 1984). Adolescents whose peer group is involved with alcohol and other drugs is also more likely to become involved (Agnello-Linden, 1991; Barrett, 1990; Biddle, Bank, & Marlin, 1980; Johnson et al.; Lang, 1985; Newcomb & Bentler, 1989; Oetting & Beauvais, 1987; Schilling & McAlister, 1990; Thorne & DeBlassie, 1985). …

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