Struggling teens use drugs more – but it may just be a phase, CU Boulder study finds

University of Colorado Boulder researchers have mixed news for parents worried about their struggling teens trying drugs and alcohol.

Man smoking marijuana. (Rafael Castillo/Flickr)
Man smoking marijuana. (Rafael Castillo/Flickr)
Man smoking marijuana. (Rafael Castillo/Flickr)

University of Colorado Boulder researchers have mixed news for parents worried about their struggling teens trying drugs and alcohol.

Young adults who lack self-control and have attention deficits are more likely to experiment with a greater variety of drugs and alcohol. But they’re not necessarily destined to become lifelong addicts, according to a CU Boulder study published in February.

“Some people assume that if you try something in adolescence, you are on a path you are never going to come back from — sort of the gateway drug hypotheses,” said Daniel Gustavson, who conducted the study as a graduate student at CU Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Genetics, in a statement. “Our data do not support this and instead show it could just be about experimenting.”

Still, no one should be blasé about teens trying drugs because there’s always a potential for problems, said Naomi Friedman, a co-author and assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience.

“But the message of comfort here is that someone who is experimenting may not necessarily become addicted,” Friedman said in a statement.

For the study, the authors looked at 846 twins, asking them at age 17 and then again at age 23 during a six-month span how many different substances — including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and hallucinogens — they used and how often. The researchers also measured signs of dependence and participants’ ability to focus and show self-control.

The results show those with low self-control or attention issues — poor executive function — tended to use more substances more frequently at age 17. But by age 23, the difference between them and their better performing peers had diminished.  At neither age did those with poor executive function show greater signs of being dependent or addicted to substances.

Previous research has shown a link between poor executive function and substance use. However, it has been unclear whether drug and alcohol use caused problems with attention and self-control or vice versa.

“This study suggests that genetic influences may cause both,” Gustavson said.

Business & data reporter Adrian D. Garcia can be reached via email at agarcia@denverite.com or twitter.com/adriandgarcia.

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Adrian D. Garcia

Author: Adrian D. Garcia

Adrian D. Garcia is on business and trends for Denverite, serves as treasurer for the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and was recently elected to the board of the Denver Press Club. He can be reached at agarcia@denverite.com.