When Kim Manlove and his wife discovered that their teenage son was abusing pot and alcohol, they did what they thought was right: They purchased commercially available drug-testing kits and began administering random urine screens at home. "We thought we'd be able to handle it on our own," recalls Manlove, 56, of Indianapolis. And for several months it appeared that their efforts were working. The drug tests, obtained on the Internet, consistently indicated that 15-year-old David was alcohol free and that his marijuana levels were decreasing, which they interpreted as a sign that he was quitting. Not so. Their son had switched to drugs that the tests couldn't detect, such as prescription pills and LSD. When his parents finally caught on, they enrolled him in treatment. "Things were beyond our capability," says Manlove.
David completed the program, but his desire to get high ultimately cost him his life, Manlove explains. Enticed by the notion that inhalants wouldn't register on his weekly, now professionally administered urine tests, David and his friends spent an afternoon huffing an aerosol (computer duster) and diving into a swimming pool because they'd heard the underwater pressure would heighten the rush. Instead, doing so triggered what's known as "sudden sniffing death syndrome," the gravest consequence of inhalants. David had a heart attack and drowned at age 16.
The Manloves' experience underscores some of the pitfalls of at-home drug testing, an increasingly popular practice among parents aiming to stop or prevent their child's drug use. And with countless test kits available, experts say that it's an increasingly difficult practice to resist—though parents should.
"I don't recommend that parents ever use home drug tests," says pediatrician Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "[They're] going to be misled." The tests are often billed as preventive, but there's no evidence that they actually keep kids away from drugs, she adds. Levy's stance is echoed by numerous others, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a 2007 statement opposing home and school drug testing until further research is done. In hindsight, Manlove agrees: "I'd go straight to the professionals, no question," he says. "Shame" and "embarrassment" are the primary reasons that he and his wife didn't seek help sooner.
Here are seven reasons why experts say drug testing should be left to the professionals:
1. It can become a missed opportunity. Manlove, who now works as a substance abuse prevention specialist for the state of Indiana, believes that the six months that elapsed between he and his wife's initial discovery of David's drug use and their procuring outside help allowed a minor problem to become major. "That delay really worked against us," he says. "If we had sought professional help earlier, I think we would have had a better chance of preventing this outcome."
2. It's easy to cheat. With all the ways to cheat urine screens, says Levy, experts worry that parents could be falsely reassured by negative drug tests while their kid actually has a problem. "My clinical experience tells me that parents are fooled all the time," she says. Furthermore, Levy says parents aren't encouraged to watch their adolescents urinate—but some testing facilities can require that urine collection is witnessed by an observer to prevent tampering. "We do it under controlled circumstances, and we know the tricks of the trade," says Peter Rogers, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University medical school who conducts substance abuse testing. That's why, he says, if a drug test is warranted, it should be handled by experienced professionals.
3. False positives can mislead you. Poppy seeds, cold medications, and even antibiotics in high doses can potentially cause false-positive results on certain types of tests, says Levy, leading parents to falsely accuse innocent teens of illegal drug use.
4. Some tests are confusing. Home kits can be difficult to navigate, says Levy, and to ask parents who have no experience with laboratory medicine to do them correctly is "tough." Moreover, she says, parents have to be pretty sophisticated to know the difference between similar-sounding drug types such as opiates (e.g., heroin) and opioids (e.g., oxycodone). Get the wrong kit, and your results could be meaningless. "Unless you have a really good indication of what your kid is using," says Manlove, "you're really just taking a shot in the dark."
5. They give you limited information. Most drugs clear the system pretty quickly, says Levy, so parents would have a tough time catching a child's occasional use.
6. And they can be costly. A package of home tests can be pricier than a visit to a medical professional. Manlove paid roughly $50 for a six pack of urine tests, though costs vary widely.
7. You're a parent, not the police. Some experts worry that the practice of home drug testing may damage the parent-child bond. "I'm not sure that's the relationship that parents want to have with their kids," says Rogers, who himself is the parent of a former teenage drug abuser (who's now a sober 21-year-old). "They shouldn't be policemen, just parents."