Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Affluent Teens Face Greater Substance Abuse Risks

It can be a difficult group to advocate for: high-achieving teens going to the best schools, living in comfortable homes with successful parents.

This group sounds like the most privileged among us. Professor Suniya Luthar also sees them as among the most vulnerable.

Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, recently published research based on the New England Study of Suburban Youth, which followed two groups of adolescents from affluent communities into early adulthood. Luthar’s research suggests accomplished teens in great schools are an under-recognized at-risk population facing higher risks for substance abuse than their peers.

“We found alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among young adults we initially studied as teenagers,” Luthar said. By age 26, the rates of addiction for men in this study were twice as high as national norms; rates were three times as high for women. Rates of addiction ranged from 23 to 40 percent among men and 19 to 24 percent among women, according to the study, published in the May journal of Development and Psychopathology.

“The most common one we hear about is Adderall,” Luthar said. “Who has it. Can I buy it. Who can give it to me.” She finds that experimentation starts younger in this cohort and continues through college, where it can turn to ecstasy and cocaine. “When you are drinking vodka in Polar Springs bottles in seventh grade, it’s a problem.”

So why did these students in suburban schools, with high standardized test scores, robust extracurricular activities and white-collar professional parents, show consistently higher use of substances?

The reasons are likely multifold, according to Luthar: High pressure among teens to get into elite universities, access to disposable income, widespread peer approval for substance use and parents lulled into a false sense of security. When parents see their children performing well in school and in demanding activities, they don’t believe they could have serious underlying issues with drugs and alcohol. It makes sense that the earlier children start to use alcohol and drugs, and the more frequently they do, the more likely it is they will develop addictions down the line.

“It’s hard to face the truth,” Luthar said, “that it may be your child who is cutting or snorting Adderall.”

In her samples, the parents were educated -- doctors, lawyers and teachers -- families with access to resources for treatment, but also less likely to openly talk about deaths due to overdoses. She says a key to addressing the problem is drawing more attention to the data, funding more research on the topic and talking to teens about the research results.

“For high-achieving and ambitious youngsters, it could actually be persuasive to share scientific data showing that in their own communities, the statistical odds of developing serious problems of addiction are two to three times higher than norms,” she said.

It makes sense that public policy has focused on the risks at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Children born into chronic poverty face greater challenges and risks of negative outcomes than their peers. It can be difficult to argue for supports for affluent children already born into such a strong safety net, as opposed to those struggling to have their basic needs met.

But Luthar argues that it’s a different type of intervention needed with the population she studied. It’s not a call for diverting resources, but for widening the conversation to include the risks they face. It’s also worthwhile to figure out how to minimize the risks for this population, she says. She wants more research on kids who grow up in pressure-cooker, high-achieving schools.

One school she studied had six students die of overdoses in a single year.

“How many times are we going to look the other way?”