During NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day 2010, young people asked a lot of great questions. One really basic question came from a student in Pennsylvania: Why do people take drugs?
While the specific answer may differ from person to person, some common reasons are that people think they will feel good, forget their problems, perform better, or fit in.
Drugs may have these effects at first, but they do not last, at least not like the long-term negative consequences can. Here are some “reality checks” on common reasons people have for doing drugs:
“Drugs help me feel good.” Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.
Reality check: While a drug-induced high may temporarily boost your mood, the effect doesn’t last long. Before you know it, the same old worries return, and, in fact, the after-effects of the drug may leave you with additional physical or emotional symptoms. Headaches, nausea, and feeling “down” are common side effects for many people. Withdrawal can be quite painful—physically and mentally.
“Drugs help me feel better.” Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression start abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or in relapsing to drug use for people recovering from addiction.
Reality check: Some prescription medications can help lessen anxiety- or stress-related problems for a person suffering from a mental health problem that has been diagnosed by a doctor. These medications should only be taken as prescribed by a doctor and used under a doctor’s care. The “high” caused by illicit drugs like marijuana or cocaine may be just a temporary mask over your problems and will not make you feel better in the long run. In fact, illicit drugs may cause you even more stress, anxiety, and problems.
"Drugs help me perform better.” The increasing pressure that some people feel to chemically enhance or improve their athletic abilities or performance in school can prompt them to start or continue drug abuse.
Reality check: So-called “performance enhancing” drugs, like steroids, actually have serious side effects. Men may develop breasts, and women may acquire some male characteristics like a deeper voice and increased body hair. Some people may abuse stimulants to increase their alertness, but dangerous side effects like irregular heartbeat, high body temperatures, and the potential for heart failure or seizures make this a bad bargain.
“Everyone’s doing it.” Teens are particularly vulnerable to trying drugs because of the strong influence of peer pressure; they are more likely, for example, to take part in risky behaviors because they assume that their peers are also doing it.
Reality check: The annual Monitoring the Future survey, which measures drug abuse by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders and their attitudes towards drugs, shows that nowhere close to a majority of teens are abusing drugs (PDF, 317 KB).
The bottom line?— knowing more about the specific negative effects of drugs on your brain and body can help you think twice before you act.
Peer pressure comes in many different forms. You might feel it in group situations, or you might have friends who try to get you to do things that make you uneasy, like smoke cigarettes, steal your parents' prescription medications, cheat on a test, or skip school.
It's hard to stand up for what you believe when everyone else is pushing something different. It's hard for adults, and it's especially hard for teens. So how do you do it—how do you resist peer pressure? What ideas do you have for staying true to you?
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During NIDA’s most recent Drug Facts Chat Day,“Kid” from Totino-Grace High School in Minnesota, asked: “Why is peer pressure such a huge factor in teens’ temptations [to experiment with] drugs and alcohol?”
Risk Versus Reward
New research shows that, when making a decision, teens think about both the risks and rewards of their actions and behaviors—but, unlike adults, teens are more likely to ignore the risk in favor of the reward.
In a NIDA-funded study, teens driving with their friends in the car were more likely to take risks—like speeding through yellow lights—if they knew that two or more of their friends were watching. Teens were also significantly more likely to act this way than adults in the same experiment.
Researchers monitored the brain activity of all the teen drivers in the study. Results showed that just knowing friends were watching activated brain regions linked with reward, especially when the teen drivers made risky decisions.
So, be aware: The desire to impress your friends may override your fear of taking risks. This could also apply to deciding whether to try drugs or alcohol—your decision might be influenced by who is around and if you think they’d be impressed.
Tell us: When you already know the risks, yet you want to impress your friends, do you run the light or slow down and stop? Do you accept a drink or turn it down? Do you go with the crowd or be your own person and impress others with your individuality? What are some ways you could put the brakes on long enough to think twice before making a decision to do something you know is risky?
In 5th grade, I was the victim of cyberbullying, when a classmate wrote hurtful instant messages about me. Shortly after, social networking became the rage, and sexting and cyberbullying became more prevalent. When I joined Facebook, I was surprised by what my peers were doing online, with little regard for the social, emotional, and legal consequences of their actions.
This experience led me to work on a number of behavioral science projects, including “OMG: Look Who Joined Facebook! The Relationship between Parenting and Adolescent Risk Behaviors,” as part of my high school’s independent research program. I was particularly interested in ways that parents could minimize the risks teens take online. My study was the first to look at whether the same factors that predict adolescent risk behaviors offline would predict them online. My study looked specifically at the relationship between what parents know about their children’s lives and how that affects adolescent risk behaviors offline and online.
I worked on this project for 2 years, under the guidance of Dr. Allyson Weseley, the coordinator of secondary research at Roslyn High School, and two distinguished experts in the field of psychology: Dr. Larry Rosen and Dr. Loes Keisjers, both of whom provided me guidance by email and video chatting.
Does Parental Involvement Affect Teens’ Online Behavior?
In preparing for my study, I learned that teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors in real life when parents know their whereabouts, activities, and associations. However, few studies examined the relationship between parenting and adolescent risk behaviors online. While it had been reported that our parents try to stay involved in our online lives, they are, for the most part, unaware of what we do on social networking sites.
I hypothesized that adolescents who report high levels of parental involvement and knowledge of their activities would be more likely to report fewer offline and online risky behaviors. I surveyed 133 high school students, from Long Island, New York, by having them complete a 74-item questionnaire.
Friend Your Folks: It May Save You in the End
My findings confirmed that parents learn about their kids in many ways: getting information from their children, their children’s friends, and their friends’ parents; setting limits on where their children can go, what they can do, and with whom; and maintaining a close relationship with their children.
My research also confirmed that adolescents whose parents are informed would be less likely to engage in offline risky behaviors. It is likely that when our parents know more about our lives, they are better able to focus on taking measures to prevent risky behaviors. The research findings indicate that teens who participate in fewer risky behaviors are more likely to share more information with their parents because they have nothing to hide. My findings also suggest that parental prevention only works in situations when parents are close to their children and work to maintain open lines of communication.
Risky Business: Online Versus Offline
It is possible that our parents do not fully appreciate the dangers of various online activities or know how to regulate them. In terms of online risky behaviors, the study results showed that parental knowledge in-and-of-itself was not particularly useful in preventing participation in risky behaviors online. This finding is significant because it highlights differences between parenting in the online world versus the real world.
Offline, teens are limited from participating in various risky behaviors by clear rules set by parents, schools, and governments; yet, when online, adolescents’ activities can go unchecked. Because of the endless freedom social networking can bring to adolescents, parents must take steps to control teens’ activities online as a deterrent. Therefore, parents need to have a good understanding of the online world, as well as a level of comfort on social networking sites.
Given the constantly evolving risks of the online world, this area will continue to need further research, to help identify additional preventive measures by parents to help keep their children safe in both the real and virtual worlds.
Benjamin Kornick is a freshman at Columbia University in New York City. At the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), he competed with more than 1,500 students from around the world and was awarded 1st Place and Best in Category in behavioral sciences. His research was also recognized by the American Psychological Association and NIDA, which awarded him the 2nd place Addiction Science Award. Following ISEF, his research was also recognized in a legislative resolution from the New York State Senate and was recently submitted for publishing in the Journal of Adolescence.
If you’re like most people, you may try to avoid revealing anything about yourself that will make people think differently or negatively about you. Basically, you’re avoiding stigma—which is being marked by shame or disgrace.
But what if you have a drug problem and want to get help?
For a long time, our society has “stigmatized” drug use and addiction, judging people with drug or alcohol problems. Fear of being judged can be dangerous if it keeps someone from getting treatment.
One way to combat the stigma associated with drug addiction is to teach people the facts. NIDA science shows that addiction is a disease, just as cancer and asthma are diseases. It’s not just that the person chooses to take drugs. In fact, an addicted person no longer chooses to take drugs—rather, their brains have been altered by drugs to the point where free will has been cruelly “hijacked,” and the desire to seek and use drugs is beyond their control. Addiction is a disease of the brain that manifests itself in compulsive behaviors. Helping people understand this sad truth may lead to more support for those battling addiction.
It’s also important to stop labeling people as one thing or another. Try to avoid saying “addicts.” This label makes it easier to dismiss people as not worthy of help or notice. It’s better to say, people with “drug use problems” or “substance use disorders.” It may be a mouthful, but this phrase makes it clear that these are people who are facing challenges. They are more than just drug addicts.
Do you avoid certain hobbies, interests, or even potential new friends because you’re afraid of what your current friends will think? What would you say to someone who needs drug abuse treatment but isn’t getting it for fear of being judged?
There may be some truth to the saying “you are who you hang out with.” Researchers have discovered that teens whose best friends drink alcohol are twice as likely to try alcohol themselves. And, if teens get alcohol from friends, they’re more likely to start drinking at a younger age.
It’s a big deal. Studies have shown that a person who drinks alcohol early is more prone to abusing alcohol when he or she gets older.
So, if your friends drink and you don’t want to, what are you supposed to do? Get a whole new set of friends? That’s probably not necessary—but you might have to work a little harder to stay away from alcohol. It can be tough to say no if the people you’re with are all doing something. It’s a good idea to have some strategies for dealing with peer pressure.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- It’s brave to stand up for yourself. Be that guy or girl who doesn’t drink. It might be hard at first, but eventually people will respect you for sticking to your beliefs. You might even start to influence some of your friends to stay away from alcohol too.
- Not everyone is doing it. In fact, according to NIDA’s 2012 Monitoring the Future survey, less than one-third of 10th graders reported using alcohol in the past month.
- It’s okay to make up an excuse. If someone is really hounding you, dodge the issue—you could say that you took medicine that will make you sick if you drink. But ask yourself: If someone isn’t respecting your decisions, then are they really that good a friend?
Tell us: How do you avoid doing something you don’t want to if your friends are doing it?
A NIDA-funded study found that a healthy person was at a higher risk for abusing drugs if a sibling or spouse abused drugs. The closer the siblings are in age, the greater the chances.
Your family life is just one factor that plays into whether you try drugs or stay away from them. Here are some other factors in teens’ lives that may affect the decision:
- Media influence. People on TV talk about drugs a lot—whether it’s Molly or marijuana or meth. Drugs are in the news and joked about on sitcoms. Some teens might be curious what all the fuss is about.
- Peer pressure. If your friends are doing it, chances are you are too. It’s not a guarantee, but peer pressure can be tough to resist.
- Feeling lonely or bullied. Studies have shown that if people feel alone, they may be more prone to use drugs and get addicted. And, teens may mistakenly think that drugs may help them cope with hard times.
- Being around drugs. Ever promise yourself that you won’t snack on potato chips, but once you see other people eating them, you feel the pull to have one too? It’s the same with drugs—if you’re around people who use them, you may start to feel like everyone is doing it and like it’s no big deal.
If you experience one or even all of these factors, it doesn’t mean that you are fated to use drugs. You can do lots of things to stay away from them, such as join drug-free after-school clubs or talk to a friend, teacher, or counselor if you are going through rough times.
What are your ideas for how to stay away from drugs or resist peer pressure?
Okay, say you’re at a party. The friends you came with have been drinking, but you haven’t. When it’s time to head home, you’re nervous—you’ve heard all about drunk driving and how dangerous it is. So, what would you do to protect yourself and your friends? Do you have a plan to deal with situations like this?
Now, what would you do if your friends had been smoking pot instead of drinking? It turns out “drugged driving” can be just as dangerous. Someone who’s been smoking pot or doing other drugs puts everyone at risk, including themselves, when they get behind the wheel. They have slower reflexes and so can’t respond as well in an emergency. In fact, if you look at car crashes where the driver is killed, about 1 in 5 involves drugs other than alcohol (like marijuana).
Usually, drugged drivers have been drinking alcohol, too—making them doubly dangerous on the road. Research shows that driving under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol is riskier than with alcohol or marijuana alone.
Look, it’s hard to go against the group. But the last thing we want to do is see our friends get hurt, arrested, or even killed. So, what can we do?
Here are some ideas:
- Stay smart and speak up. Remember that the effects of marijuana and alcohol last for hours, so even if your friends haven’t had a drink in a while, it could still be dangerous for them to drive. If you are in a healthy state of mind and have your driver’s licence on you, ask for the keys and get the group home safely.
- Find another ride. Try to find another sober friends to give you a lift.
- Call someone to pick you up. Okay, so you might not want to call Mom or Dad to get you from a party; but chances are, they’ll be happier that you called them rather than put yourself in a dangerous situation. You also could call another family member.
- Crash at the host’s house. If possible, wait it out until morning and stay put. Just make sure to let someone know where you are and that you are safe.
The best advice: Plan ahead. If you know people will be drinking, pick a “designated driver” before you head out. Better yet, throw your own booze-free bash!
Read more facts and stats about impaired driving.