Early Alcohol Use Causes Big Problems, Even for "Good Kids"

Stable family life isn't enough to counter ills of drinking, drugs before age 15.


Corrected on 10/21/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Candice Odgers’s first name.

The earlier a teenager starts drinking and using drugs, the more likely he or she will struggle in adulthood with substance abuse, job performance, and personal relationships. But is that because troubled children are more likely to use, or because the mind-altering substances are to blame? Society all too often sends a mixed message, on one hand saying that all substance use is harmful for teens, while on the other saying that it's normal for teens to try drugs and alcohol, and most turn out OK. That makes it easy for parents to think, hey, I've got a good kid here, he'll be OK. Well, maybe not.

Knowledge is power in parentland, and here's the first solid evidence that the "no drinking or drugs" parents are right. A new study published in the October Psychological Science found that even "good kids" are more likely to end up in trouble if they start using drugs or alcohol early in life. By looking at a group of nearly 1,000 people in New Zealand who have been studied from age 3 to age 32, a group of researchers in the United States, New Zealand, and England were able to see that those who started drinking or using marijuana regularly before age 15 were far more likely to fail in school, be convicted of a crime, have trouble with drugs or alcohol, or get pregnant in their teens.

Half of the teenagers who had regularly used drugs or alcohol before age 15 hadn't had conduct problems before, but these "good kids" were almost four times as likely to be substance-dependent at age 32 as the good kids who didn't drink or toke. They were also more likely than the nonindulging good kids to end up with a criminal conviction. One third of the "good girls" who used got pregnant before age 21, while only 12 percent of the nonusers did.

Not surprisingly, the people who grew up in troubled households and who had had conduct problems as children did worse than the good kids. They were twice as likely to be exposed to illicit substances before age 15, and had more problems with school than the children from more stable homes. But all of the teenagers who used drugs and alcohol regularly had poorer health as adults than the abstainers.

"Fifty percent of kids under the age of 15 are actually using substances," says Candice Odgers, an assistant professor in psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine, who led the study. "There's a perception that it's normal for kids to experiment, but we know from research on brain development that this is a pretty vulnerable time."

This reminds me, poignantly, of a conversation I had earlier this year with Nic Sheff, a "good kid" who experimented early on with drugs and alcohol and became addicted to meth while still in high school. Nic's dad, David, says now he wishes he hadn't been so laissez faire about teenage drug use.

Most earlier efforts to tease out the effect of early drinking and drug use relied on asking adults to remember their habits as teenagers, and were thus less than reliable. Although this study couldn't control which children took drugs and alcohol, the large number of people followed makes it the most reliable indication to date of the effects of early drug and alcohol use.

Troubled children might need extra help to stay away from drugs and alcohol, but good kids also need to hear loud and clear that waiting until 21 might be the best investment they could ever make in their future.