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Professor Luthar Finds Suburban Teens Prone to Substance Abuse and Stress

Do prosperous, manicured suburbs of the Northeast belie a sense of insecurity for teens who live there? A study suggests that they go through more personal trials than their inner-city counterparts.

Upper-middle class adolescents have a greater propensity for drug and alcohol use, depression and bouts of misbehavior, says one of the first studies to focus on specifically affluent suburban teens. "Contextual Factors in Substance Abuse: A Study of Suburban and Inner-city Adolescents," conducted by Suniya S. Luthar, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education and her colleague Karen D'Avanzo, Associate Research Scientist at Yale University, was published in the journal, Development and Psychopathology in December, 1999.

The study involved almost 500 10th grade high school students in the Northeast. About half of the students were from upper-middle class, suburban families, and half from low socioeconomic status families, living in inner-city settings. The researchers received assessments of the students' behavior from the teenagers' themselves as well as from their peers and teachers.

The researchers talked to students and teachers and found:

  • Suburban youth reported significantly higher levels of substance use than did their inner-city counterparts. These differences were consistent across gender and across different types of substances, that is, alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. Among suburban girls, 46 percent admitted using an illicit drug at least once in the past year, compared with 26 percent of inner-city females. And 59 percent of suburban boys used an illicit drug once, compared to 33 percent of boys in the inner city.
  • Substance use was linked to high personal distress among suburban youth, but not inner-city youth. The researchers suggest that suburban teens may often use drugs and alcohol in attempts to alleviate feelings of anxiety that may be caused partly by the high expectations of family and school officials.
  • Overall, levels of self-reported anxiety were significantly higher among suburban teens than among those in the inner city. While 22 percent of suburban boys felt anxious, 17 percent of the inner-city girls and 18 percent of the inner-city boys did. Levels of self-reported delinquency, and of depressive symptoms, were no different between the two cohorts. This, despite the fact that inner-city teens experienced higher levels of environmental stressors such as exposure to violence in the neighborhood, and uncontrollable negative life events (death in the family, a parent's loss of a job).
  • Some male suburban peer groups and cliques seemed to give drug use and misbehavior, such as disruptive classroom antics, a high status that endorses the behavior.
  • One in five of the suburban girls reported clinically significant depressive problems; 18 percent of inner-city girls in the study suffered from some type of depression. Symptoms of depression were found among five percent of the suburban boys, compared with one percent of inner-city boys.

Luthar and D'Avanzo considered a range of explanations for the elevated substance use among suburban youth. Given their greater financial resources, suburban youngsters may simply have had more cash available to purchase drugs.

Second, suburban youth may have been less afraid to experiment with drugs than inner-city teens, who are surrounded by many poignant illustrations of the perils of drug use in their everyday lives.

A third possibility is that elevated substance use reflects a syndrome of adjustment difficulties among many suburban teens. This conjecture derives from the fact that adjustment problems themselves were surprisingly high among the affluent teens. Levels of worry and physiological anxiety were significantly higher among suburban than low socioeconomic counterparts.

What makes these findings particularly striking is the nature of the group to which suburban teens were compared: low socioeconomic adolescents who routinely encounter potent environmental adversity. Despite the material resources ostensibly available to them, suburban youth reported at least as much personal maladjustment as did teens who contend with serious economic deprivation and limited opportunity.

Findings of comparable distress in the two groups suggest that that suburban youth may have struggled with a set of unique life stressors. For many of these teens, gaining admission to stellar colleges is emphasized as a top priority. As a consequence, most feel highly driven to excel not only at academic but also at multiple extra-curricular activities.

Sarah Pennington, 16, says drug, cigarette and alcohol use by students is common in her suburban hometown of Terryville, Connecticut. She says some students try alcohol or drugs at parties, and some sneak puffs on cigarettes at street corners near her 500-student school.

"The comfortable environment of a middle or upper class home can lull some parents into thinking that their children are sheltered from certain risks," says Luthar. She adds, "Complacency can lead some parents not to pick up on signs of distress until something major happens."

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