Page last updated: Sep 2020
Teens who crave excitement are more likely to smoke and use multiple illicit substances

A study of high school seniors in the U.S. suggests that teens who are less satisfied with their lives and who seek out risky experiences and exciting, unpredictable friends are more likely to use multiple illicit substances on a regular basis.
The study authors comment that in the US the increased popularity of e-cigarette use among high school students and the legalisation of marijuana across many states has resulted in new patterns of poly-substance use (PSU). In their study they sought to understand contemporary patterns of PSU and their associations with individual social-emotional characteristics (sensation seeking, perceived harm, life satisfaction) and social-contextual factors (parental involvement, school norms, academics, and behaviours).
Using data from 8,417 12th-grade students who took part in the 2016 Monitoring the Future project, the relationship among individual characteristics, social-contextual factors, and patterns of PSU was modelled. Three patterns of PSU were identified: 72% of teens in the sample were low-level users who for the most part abstained. These students associated the greatest risks with substance use, particularly heavy drinking and vaping. A second group of teens, about 24% of the sample, were primarily marijuana users, but also dabbled with cigarettes or e-cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. Polysubstance users accounted for about 4% of the study sample. “Students who scored the highest on sensation-seeking viewed substance use as less harmful than the low-level users that mostly abstained from drinking, smoking and using drugs,” said Tan, the first author of the study.
“While the high school years are typically a time during which risk-taking and sensation-seeking peak, our results indicate that there are marked differences in sensation-seeking among students who regularly use substances compared with those who don’t.”
Students with pre-dominant marijuana use were differentiated from those with PSU by having higher perceived harm of electronic and regular cigarettes, heavy alcohol use, and better academic grades. Furthermore, students with both polysubstance and pre-dominant marijuana use, when compared to those with low-use, had lower life satisfaction, higher sensation seeking, lower perceived harm of substance use, poorer grades, and more disciplinary problems.
Parental involvement in the students’ schooling, such as helping with or checking on whether teens did their homework, differentiated the low-level users from their peers who were habitual marijuana users. Teens’ academic performance and their disciplinary referrals were important predictors of substance use patterns as well, the researchers found.
“Although 12th graders are on the threshold of adulthood, parental involvement and students’ engagement in school are still critical at this time,” Tan said. “These findings emphasise the importance of parents taking active roles in their children’s lives, their schooling and what they do outside the home.”
To mitigate the risks of poor developmental outcomes associated with teens’ poly-substance use, the researchers suggest that schools are encouraged to develop a continuum of multi-tiered preventative and intervention approaches that address students’ academic and behavioural needs and promote high school completion.
Source: Kevin Tan, Jordan P. Davis, Douglas C. Smith & Wang Yang (2020) Individual, Family, and School Correlates across Patterns of High School Poly-substance Use, Substance Use & Misuse, 55:5, 743-751.

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