When it comes to prevention of substance use in our tween population, getting our kids to just say no may require a certain amount of thought control.
New research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, co-led by professors Roisin O’Connor of Concordia University and Craig Colder of State University of New York at Buffalo, has found that between the ages of 10 and 12, kids are decidedly ambivalent toward cigarettes and alcohol.
These tweens have both positive and negative associations with these harmful substances and have yet to decide what attitude to take. Because they are especially susceptible to social influences, media portrayals of drug use and peer pressure become strong allies of substance use around these formative years.
“Initiation and escalation of alcohol and cigarette use occurring during late childhood and adolescence makes this an important developmental period to examine precursors of substance use,” says O’Connor, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology. “We conducted this study to have a better understanding of what puts this group at risk for initiating substance use so we can be more proactive with prevention.”
According to O’Connor, drinking and smoking among this age group is influenced by both impulsive (acting without thinking), and controlled (weighing the pros against the cons) decisional processes. With this study, both processes were therefore examined to best understand the risk for initiating substance use.
The study showed that at the impulsive, automatic level, these kids thought these substances were bad but they were easily able to overcome these biases and think of them as good when asked to place them with positive words.
O’Connor explains that “this suggests that this age group may be somewhat ambivalent about drinking and smoking. We need to be concerned when kids are ambivalent because this is when they may be more easily swayed by social influences.”
In order to produce these findings, close to 400 children between the ages of 10 and 12 participated in a computer-based test that involved targeted tasks. The tweens were asked to place pictures of cigarettes and alcohol with negative or positive words. The correct categorization of some trials, for example, involved placing pictures of alcohol with a positive word in one category and placing pictures of alcohol with negative words in another category.
The next step in this study is to look at kids over a longer period of time. The hypothesis from the research is that as tweens begin to use these substances there will be an apparent weakening in their negative biases toward drinking and smoking: The tweens will develop more pros for substance use as the cons lose their importance.
“We would like to track kids before they use substances and to follow them out into their first few years of use and see how these processes play out,” says O’Connor.
She continues, “There is such a big focus now on telling kids substances are bad, but from our study we are seeing that they already know they are bad, therefore that is not the problem. The problem is the likelihood of external pressures that are pushing them past their ambivalence so that they use. In a school curriculum format I see helping kids deal with their ambivalence in the moment when faced with the choice to use or not use substances.”
• “Understanding Student Drinking” — NOW, April 18, 2011
• Concordia’s Department of Psychology