Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The best thing parents can do to keep their teenagers from using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is to keep them from getting bored, getting stressed out or getting too much money, according to the 2003 Survey of Teens and Their Parents released Tuesday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.
CASA President Joseph Califano said the survey should help dispel some of the cultural myths about which teens are most likely to be substance abusers.
"We tend to think that the only kids that are using drugs, or the likeliest to use drugs, are these kids with all these problems, some poor kids in an urban ghetto," Califano said. "The reality is that the average American teenager who's stressed out or who's bored or who has too much money to spend is at enormously high risk of using drugs, and parents have got to recognize that."
Traditional indicators of a higher-than-average likelihood of substance abuse among teens include being physically or sexually abused, having a learning disability or eating disorder, or suffering from serious depression or another mental health condition. In addition to those factors, the CASA found that:
More than half of U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds (52 percent) are at greater risk of substance abuse because of high stress, frequent boredom, too much spending money or some combination of these characteristics.
Teens who reported being highly stressed are twice as likely as teens experiencing little stress to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs.
"Often bored" teens are 50 percent more likely than "not often bored" teens to use alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
Teens with $25 a week - or more - spending money are almost twice as likely as teens with less to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs - and more than twice as likely to get drunk.
Teens displaying two or three of these characteristics have more than three times a greater risk of substance abuse than those exhibiting none of the characteristics.
Parents' attitudes can shape children's futures
"This survey signals parents that their conduct and attitudes have an enormous impact on their children," Califano stressed. "Parental engagement in their child's life is the best protection Mom and Dad can provide their children against substance abuse."
Kristin Hansen with the Family Research Council said she hopes parents will listen to what their children told the CASA researchers.
"Parents are not realizing the dramatic impact that they can have on their children - or that their teens are looking for a strong message from them and from society," Hansen said. "They want their parents to be involved in their lives, yet parents are throwing up their hands and saying, 'This is a fait accompli; we cannot have any impact on our children.'
"That's just not true," Hansen said, adding that parents can persuade their teens to avoid premarital sex and other high-risk behaviors, just as they can successfully discourage substance abuse.
One manner parents can get involved in their children's lives, which the CASA measured, is participation in religious services. The survey found: "Teens who attend religious services at least once a week (49 percent) are at substantially lower risk (average risk score of 0.81) than those who attend less frequently or not at all (average risk score of 1.21)."
Bob Smithouser - editor of Focus on the Family's Plugged In monthly magazine, which analyzes youth culture and teen entertainment trends - said he's not surprised that "a close relationship with Mom and Dad and a religious affiliation would limit teens' risky behavior.
"Here, we've got accountability to not only elders, but to God as well," Smithouser explained.
"When people are faced with those kinds of temptations," Smithouser continued, "they realize that they're part of something bigger than themselves, and it's something worthwhile, either a family or - in a grander, spiritual scheme of things - that there's something there of greater value than that quick fix and the potential risks of drug abuse."
While positive parental influences can greatly reduce teens' risk for substance abuse, negative parental leanings - even slight ones - can have the reverse effect. In fact, "parental pessimism" - as the CASA calls it - can actually increase the chances that a teen will experiment with controlled substances.
While only 11 percent of teens declared themselves "likely" to engage in substance abuse in the future, 41 percent of the parents surveyed said that their teen was "likely" to abuse. [Emphasis in original] The CASA concluded that: "Teens whose parents think future drug use is 'very likely' are more than three times likelier to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs than teens whose parents say future drug use is 'not likely at all.'"
More teens avoiding peers who engage in risky behaviors
The CASA discovered that more teens are steering clear of peers who are substance abusers. But children are still presented with their first opportunity to abuse alcohol, tobacco and other drugs at a very young age, and the exposure and associated risk tends to increase as they grow older.
Fewer teens are associating with peers who use substances: 56 percent have no friends who regularly drink, up from 52 percent in 2002; 68 percent have no friends who use marijuana, up from 62 percent in 2002; and 70 percent have no friends who smoke cigarettes, up from 56 percent in 2002.
The average age of first use is 12 years, two months for alcohol, 12 years, six months for cigarettes and 13 years, 11 months for marijuana.
Between 12 and 17 years of age, the likelihood that a teen will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs increases more than seven times, and the percentage of teens with close friends who use marijuana jumps 14 times.
Califano hopes parents of older students will pay particularly close attention to this year's survey and the CASA recommendations because the proportion of students who say that drugs are used, kept or sold at their high schools is up 18 percent over 2002, from 44 to 52 percent.
"Whereas last year, the odds were that your high schooler was going to go to a school where drugs would not be used, kept and sold," Califano noted, "this year, the odds are that you're high schooler is returning to a school where drugs are used, kept and sold." [Emphasis as delivered.]
Teens as worried over social and academic pressures as drugs for first time
The 2003 Survey of Teens and Their Parents included 1,987 teens between 12 and 17 years of age (1,044 boys and 943 girls), along with 504 parents (403 of those were parents of the teens interviewed). This is the first year that the CASA has included questions about boredom, stress and spending money, as well as questions about the abuse of prescription drugs and steroids. Twenty-five percent of the teens surveyed said they know someone who abuses prescription medications, while only 12 percent said they knew of a peer using steroids.
The CASA survey also determined that:
More than 5 million 12- to 17-year-olds (20 percent) can buy marijuana in an hour or less; another 5 million (19 percent) can buy marijuana within a day.
The proportion of teens that consider beer easier to buy than cigarettes or marijuana is up 80 percent from 2000 (18 percent vs. 10 percent).
For the first time in the survey's eight-year history, teens are as concerned about social and academic pressures as they are about drugs.
Teens at schools with more than 1,200 students are twice as likely as teens at schools with less than 800 students to be at high risk of substance abuse (25 percent vs. 12 percent).
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