It's back-to-school season and parents all over the country are breathing a sigh of relief. Sure, after school and on weekends you know to be extra attentive to your teens' whereabouts but when it comes to the school day, most parents assume their kids are (at least relatively) safe.
Much to parents' chagrin, a new survey warns that some kids are packing more in their backpacks than pencil boxes and notebooks. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has found that 17 percent of high school students use drugs or alcohol during the school day. Half of those surveyed knew of a place they could go during school to drink or get high.
Of course, parents want to believe that the school they've chosen for their child is immune from the influence of drugs and alcohol. Yet for the sixth straight year, 60 percent of high school students in the CASA survey said they attended a "drug infected" school, meaning drugs are used or sold on campus. Almost half (44 percent) of students said they personally knew a student drug dealer.
"But my child goes to private school," some parents say. While having a child in private school used to be a comfort to parents, in this year's survey more than 50 percent of private high school students said their school is drug-infected, up from 36 percent of students in 2011.
By far, the most popular drug sold on campus was marijuana (91 percent), followed by prescription drugs (24 percent), cocaine (9 percent) and ecstasy (7 percent). But isn't teen drug use fairly harmless? For some, it may be. But studies are increasingly showing that experimentation with drugs and alcohol at a time when the brain and body are still developing can have long-lasting effects.
A 2012 New Zealand study found that chronic marijuana use before age 18 does lasting harm to a teen's intelligence, memory and attention. Those who started smoking pot in adolescence and continued using it had a lower IQ, which did not get better after stopping drug use. Teen brains are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of drugs, as people who delayed marijuana use until adulthood did not show this type of mental decline.
What Can Parents Do?
You may not be able to single handedly change the problem of drug use in schools, but you can take steps to safeguard your own child:
Set Limits on Social Media. Teens who regularly use social networking sites like Facebook may be exposed to "digital peer pressure" in the form of images promoting teen partying. In the CASA survey, 75 percent of teens said seeing pictures of other teens partying with alcohol or marijuana encouraged them to do the same.Teens who saw these images were four times more likely to have used marijuana, more than three times likelier to have used alcohol, and almost three times more likely to have used tobacco.
Monitor Your Teens Closely. Numerous studies have linked teen drug use with lack of parental involvement or monitoring. The CASA survey assessed the impact of teens being left home alone overnight without adult supervision, revealing that these teens were twice as likely to use marijuana, almost twice as likely to have used alcohol, and three times more likely to have used tobacco.
Encourage Spirituality. Young people gain a sense of purpose and belonging from a spiritual connection. While this connection can be with any higher power, the CASA survey specifically looked at teens who participate in religious services and found that those who attend at least four times a month were less likely to have used drugs or alcohol.
Address Mental Health Issues Early. While some teens fall into drug use because of curiosity or peer pressure, many use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate an underlying mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety. A 2012 study from Duke University found that treating teen depression also reduces the risk of later drug abuse.
Start the Conversation Early. Parents often fear that talking to their children about drugs may plant ideas in their heads, but young people are exposed to these issues far earlier than most parents realize. In a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 78 percent of teens had consumed alcohol and 43 percent had used illicit drugs, often by age 14. The earlier drug use begins, the more likely children are to struggle with addiction later in life. Children need a basic education about illicit drugs such as cocaine, meth and heroin, which continue to be used by high schoolers. They also need warnings about prescription and over-the-counter drugs which have the illusion of safety but can be just as dangerous as other drugs.
School should be a place of learning, socializing and self-discovery, but for some teens it is where lifelong problems with drugs and alcohol begin. Armed with this knowledge, asking your teen, "What did you do at school today?" suddenly takes on new meaning. Even if you don't always get straight answers, keep asking -- your care and concern are your teen's best protection.
Follow David Sack, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drdavidsack