Flying from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco recently, I chatted with two 8th grade girls returning home from a class trip. Amy, a likable jumble of precociousness and naiveté, asked me where I lived and what I did for a living, and we were soon discussing my latest interest: the Internet, adolescents, and how they get information about drugs. She promptly informed me that she isn't "a druggie" and had never searched online for information about drugs.
Though well-versed in the ways of the virtual world—Amy has multiple profiles on MySpace and was featured in a video on YouTube—the girls gave the impression that using it to learn about forbidden or dangerous topics like drugs hadn't crossed their minds. Such details are best gotten from peers and her older brother, Amy explained, adding that plenty of her classmates smoke marijuana. Amy also suggested I write a story about adolescents, drugs, and peer pressure—a common theme in their lives.
Peer pressure, as it happens, was a theme at the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Drug Facts Chat Day for adolescents last fall. Find some of the most telling questions and illuminating answers here.
Information from friends or online sources—which is incredibly easy to find if you're remotely clever or curious (example: this YouTube video of teens listening to music about smoking marijuana...while they're smoking marijuana)—typically reflects only the short-term effects of drugs, says Gayathri Dowling, deputy chief of the Science Policy Branch in NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications and an online moderator of the chat day. Left out are the long-term consequences of addiction and substance abuse, she adds. Also, inaccurate information from peers, older siblings, or websites often leaves kids misinformed. Under the veil of online anonymity, adolescents participating in the chat day asked NIDA scientists about a range of topics, getting thorough, nonjudgmental answers to common questions about marijuana, prescription stimulants, other prescription drugs and chemicals found around the house, steroids, alcohol, tobacco, and how sex and drugs mix.
Parental monitoring. While my aisle-mates don't dabble, other adolescents do. A 2007 government survey found that 15 percent of high school seniors reported taking prescription drugs (such as amphetamines, tranquilizers, sedatives, and nonheroin opiates like Vicodin and OxyContin) for a nonmedical use; 22 percent of seniors had smoked cigarettes in the past month; and 44 percent of seniors had consumed alcohol in the previous month. (Statistics about drug use trends in 8th- and 10th-graders are also available through the link above.) With peer pressure and curiosity running high in the adolescent realm, what's a parent to do?
Know thy child. "Parents are and continue to be the most influential purveyors of information on topics of great importance," says Elizabeth Robertson, chief of the Prevention Research Branch in NIDA's Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research; "Peers are more influential with what kids wear and where they go." So how to mold the best message? Have an ongoing dialogue to establish—and reiterate—the values of the household. Because there's always a certain level of risk, says Robertson, knowing your kids' friends and their parents is also important to building a healthy safety net. Another key element: "Parental monitoring is important for kids of all ages," including those exasperating teens who push the boundaries of autonomy. As a formerly surly know-it-all teen who regularly broke curfew to go party with my friends and their older siblings, I can (retrospectively) appreciate such "parental monitoring."