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Kids in high-achieving schools: Addiction down the road?

May 31, 2017

New study led by ASU professor shows the link between growing up in affluent communities and drug and alcohol addiction

They have what most would want — affluent upwardly mobile parents, living in comfortable homes in the suburbs, going to an elite high school and being groomed for the nation’s best colleges. And they appear to thrive in this setting — popular among their peers, performing exceedingly well in school, highly regarded by peers and teachers, and accomplished at a various extracurricular activities. 

But these “privileged” American high schoolers can be at high risk for problematic substance abuse across early adulthood, according to new research from Arizona State University.

Suniya Luthar

“We found alarmingly high rates of substance abuse among young adults who we initially studied as teenagers,” said Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who led the research. “Results showed that among both men and women and across annual assessments, these young adults had substantial elevations, relative to national norms, in frequency of several indicators — drinking to intoxication and of using marijuana, stimulants such as Adderall, cocaine and club drugs such as ecstasy.”

The paper, “Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood,” appears in the current issue of Development and Psychopathology. It is co-authored by Phillip Small, an ASU graduate student in clinical psychology, and Lucia Ciciolla, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

In the article, the authors describe a study of two groups of students in affluent communities in the Northeast U.S. as part of the New England Study of Suburban Youth (NESSY). The researchers assessed these youngsters as high school seniors and then annually across four college years (NESSY-Y, for the younger cohort), and across ages 23 to 27 (NESSY-O, for the older cohort).  

“We found rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol among 19 to 24 percent of women in the older cohort by the age of 26, and 23 to 40 percent among men. These rates were three and two times as high respectively, as compared to national norms,” Luthar said. “Among the younger cohort by the age of 22 years, rates of addiction were between 11 and 16 percent among women (close to national norms) but 19 to 27 percent among men, or about twice as high as national norms.”

Luthar said a look into the lives of these adolescents provide some clues to the cause of these high rates of addictions. 

When the NESSY groups were first assessed, they all attended the best schools in the region — suburban schools with very high standardized test scores, rich extra-curricular offerings and high proportions of their graduates heading off to highly selective universities. In general, kids at such schools experience enormous pressures to achieve, and many come to live by the dual credos of “I can, therefore I must” and “We work hard and we play hard” with the playing involving parties with drugs and alcohol. 

Also implicated is affluence in the school community.

“Not all of these students were from wealthy families but most were, as parents typically had advanced educational degrees and median incomes much higher than national norms,” Luthar said. “And without question, most of the parents wanted their kids to head off to the best universities, as did the kids themselves.” 

With affluence comes ease in acquiring drugs, she added. “Many kids in these communities have plenty of disposable income with which they can get high-quality fake IDs, as well as alcohol and both prescription and recreational drugs.”

"These ostensibly privileged youth, many of who start experimenting early and often with drinking and drugs, could well be among the groups at highest risk for alcoholism and addiction in adulthood.”   

— Suniya Luthar, ASU Foundation Professor of psychology

Other factors that exacerbate the risks, Luthar said, include widespread peer approval for substance use, and the fact that parents can be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that as their kids continue to perform well in school there could not be any serious underlying issues. As a result, they can become somewhat laissez-faire about detected alcohol or marijuana use. 

So what can be done to reverse this trend?

“This is a problem that derives from multiple levels of influence, so we’re going to need interventions at multiple levels to tackle it,” Luthar said.

“At the level of the kids themselves and their parents, it will be important to disseminate research findings — based on rigorous scientific data — that messing with drugs and alcohol really should not be trivialized as just something all kids do,” Luthar said. “The earlier children start to use and the more frequently they do, the more likely it is that they will develop addictions down the line.”

Luthar pointed to strategies like sex-education programs conveying the “bottom line” of risks involved, such as “it only takes once” to contract a sexually transmitted disease.

“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,” Luthar said. “And that it truly just takes one event of being arrested with cocaine, or hurting someone in a drunken car accident, to derail the high-profile positions of leadership and influence toward which they are working so hard for the future.”

On a second level is reducing the enormous pressure these kids are under trying to get into only the most selective universities.

“As long as university admissions processes continue to be as they are — increasingly smaller number of admits per applications and requiring impossible resumes — these young people will continue to be frenetic in pursuing those coveted spots and many will continue to self-medicate as a result,” Luthar said. “An alternative approach, suggested by my colleague Barry Schwartz, could be to have these highly selective universities institute a lottery system for final admittance, given all other qualifications and resumes being equal.

A second important measure would be showing the kids there are role models of adults who did not go to an elite university, but who picked a college because it felt right for them and who were highly successful in life. 

“It shows that there is, in fact, life, wisdom, financial solvency, creativity and, yes, happiness beyond the walls of the Ivy Leagues,” Luthar said.

A third factor is for leaders in science, public health and social policy to take seriously the fact that youth at high-achieving schools could be a population that is at inordinately high risk for addiction. Decades ago, developmental researchers established that children growing up in chronic poverty were at high risk for maladjustment, and this led, laudably, to a plethora of studies trying to figure out how best to minimize risks and foster resilience among these youth by addressing different aspects of their environments. 

“We now need the same dedicated research on kids who grow up in pressure-cooker, high-achieving schools,” Luthar said. “Paradoxical though it may seem, these ostensibly privileged youth, many of who start experimenting early and often with drinking and drugs, could well be among the groups at highest risk for alcoholism and addiction in adulthood.”

Associate Director , Media Relations & Strategic Communications

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Apache name for meteorite housed at ASU center: Dishchii’bikoh Ts’iłsǫǫsé Tsee.
Space stone reveals unusual features in initial ASU scientific analysis.
Meteorite curated on ASU's Tempe campus belongs to White Mountain Apache Tribe.
June 1, 2017

White Mountain Apache Tribe chooses moniker for meteorite retrieved by ASU team; analysis reveals stone's intriguing structure

Far out in the asteroid belt, more than 200 million miles from Earth, an asteroid the size of a Volkswagen Beetle lazily orbited the sun. Then something — we’ll never know what — disturbed it.

It was knocked out of its orbit into an elliptical orbit. It swung closer and closer to the sun. Then, last summer on June 2, it roared into Earth’s atmosphere at 40,000 miles per hour.

This random chain of cosmic events landed it on the homeland of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona.

Now it has a name. The tribe has named their meteorite Dishchii’bikoh Ts’iłsǫǫsé Tsee. In English, it is CibecueThe town of Cibecue is close to where the meteorite was found. Star Rock. It was officially confirmed Monday.

Recovered by an Arizona State University team during a three-day expedition, it is a meteorite like no other ever studied.

“It does contain things we have not seen before,” said Laurence Garvie, research professor and curator of the Center for Meteorite Studies in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

It is an ordinary chondrite — the most common type of meteor. However, when Garvie examined it in detail, he found some unusual features.

“Ooo, we’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “We just finished the initial scientific analysis of Dishchii’bikoh. It turned out to be really interesting. In one respect it’s an ordinary chondrite, but when we looked at the structure there’s aspects we’ve never seen before. This is where the future scientific analysis will take place.”

Video and top photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

It has been classified as an LL7 meteorite. Only 50 of that type have been found over the world. This is the first in North America.

“Look at the structure inside,” Garvie said. “These stones are really, really fragile. It’s like someone crushed this rock with a mortar and pestle and then squeezed it back together very gently. How did that structure form? That’s something we still need to work at.”

The name and classification were approved by the Committee for Meteorite Nomenclature, a 12-member international committee that classifies all new meteorites found around the world. The committee is part of the Meteoritical Society. They mull such questions as, is the name appropriate? How do you justify it being a certain type of meteorite? Is the science there? It’s a difficult and time-consuming process.

“It’s something the public knows almost nothing about,” Garvie said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s not just me eyeballing it saying, ‘It’s a whatever.’ It’s hours of work here and hours of work on microscopes and hours of work looking through boring Excel spreadsheets. Then you have to write a report and then you have to submit it to the nomenclature committee and then, assuming everything is OK, you have to publish your findings. So it’s a long, long process.”

The meteorite belongs to the White Mountain Apache Tribe, but it will be curated in perpetuity at the center on the university’s Tempe campus. Permission to curate the meteorite took months of legal work. Because the meteorite belongs to the tribe, they chose its name.

“We wanted something that reflected the local environment and what’s special about it,” Garvie said.

Jacob Moore, assistant vice president of tribal relations at Arizona State University, and tribal chairman Ronnie Lupe were key to securing permission from the tribe to search on their land.

“This would not have happened without a lot of people,” Garvie said. “It’s just been a really, really fun story.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

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