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Professor Luthar's Study Finds Suburban Teens more Prone to Substance abuse, Stress and delinquency

Youngsters in two environments-prosperous, manicured suburbs of the Northeast and its grim inner-city neighborhoods-appear to be living on different planets. But unlike the stereotype, relatively affluent teens may well be facing surprisingly high adjustment problems in comparison to their inner-city counterparts.

These findings were the result of 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 Professor Suniya S. Luthar, Associate Professor Psychology and Education and her colleague Karen D'Avanzo, Associate Research Scientist at Yale University. The data will be published in the journal, Development and Psychopathology in December, 1999.

The research findings are highly relevant in light of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April and the May incident where a 15-year-old student armed with two guns walked into the indoor commons area of Heritage High School, in Conyers, Georgia, and opened fire, wounding six of his fellow students.The study involved almost 500 tenth 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 obtained assessments of the students' behavior from the teenagers themselves as well as from their peers and teachers.

The study revealed that : 1. 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.

2. Among suburban (but not inner-city) youth, high levels of substance use were linked with high personal distress, suggesting that suburban teenagers may often use substances in attempts to alleviate feelings of anxiety and distress.

3. Overall, levels of self-reported anxiety were significantly higher among suburban than inner-city teens. 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).

4. Among suburban boys, high status among peers showed strong positive links with various conventional indicators of "maladjustment," including substance use and disruptive behavior at school. Therefore, the peer group seemed to actively endorse some maladaptive behavior patterns, particularly among male students.

5. One in five of the suburban girls reported clinically significant depressive problems. These rates are 2 to 3 times as high as those that are typically found among adolescent girls in this country.

In the study by Luthar and D'Avanzo, relatively affluent youth were found to be at a disadvantage compared to inner-city teens across all measures of substance use: use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana considered individually as well as in combinations with each other and other illegal drugs.

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

Secondly, 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 underlying the results 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 those of low socioeconomic youth.

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, neighborhood disadvantage, racism, limited opportunities for employment, and exposure to community violence. Findings of comparable distress in the two groups suggest that suburban youth may have struggled with a set of unique life stressors and high pressures to achieve.

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 academics but also at multiple extra-curricular activities.

Luthar and D'Avanzo say, "These youngsters' needs for emotional security and closeness often suffer as the demands of professional parents' careers erode relaxed 'family time,' and children are shuttled between various after-school activities such as music lessons, tutoring, athletic events, etc."

USA Today's Stephaan Harris wrote an article on Luthar's research titled, "Drugs, Depression Trouble Surburban Teens." The article was published on August 16, 1999.

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