Adolescents are under a constant barrage of information, between school, extracurricular activities and parental instruction. As they gain more freedom with friends and time, however, one area of instruction is critical: the risks of substance abuse.
Adolescents’ perceptions of risk associated with a behavior are closely related to their choices, with an inverse association between drug use and risk perception (as risk is perceived to be higher, the adolescent chooses not to participate in the behavior). Risk awareness is a key component to educating adolescents about substance abuse, and a recent study examined risk perception across genders, ages and drug types.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) asks adolescents from age 12 to 17 about their perceptions of risk in harming themselves physically and in other ways when they use cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. The information presented in this article was gathered from combined data from 2007 and 2008.
The adolescents questioned perceived great risk connected with some substances. 69.3 percent of adolescents perceived great risk from smoking one or more packs of cigarettes per day. 57.4 percent associated great risk with trying heroin once or twice, 50.9 percent perceived great risk from trying LSD once or twice, and 49.7 percent associated great risk with using cocaine once per month.
Risk associated with other substances was significantly lower. Only 40.0 percent perceived great risk from having five or more drinks of alcohol once or twice a week and just 34.2 percent perceived great risk from smoking marijuana once per month.
Adolescents choose to abuse tobacco products, alcohol and marijuana more than other substances. For all three of the substances most commonly abused, females were more likely than males to perceive great risk. However, when questioned about other substances, males were more likely to perceive great risk from using heroin once or twice and the genders had similar responses about the risks of LSD and cocaine.
Perceptions of risk changed across age groups, except with smoking. The risks associated with drinking five or more drinks of alcohol once or twice a week and with smoking marijuana once a month decreased with age. However, the risk associated with using cocaine once a month, trying heroin once or twice, and trying LSD once or twice increased with age.
The information gathered by the survey presents mixed data for those preparing strategies to educate adolescents about the risks of substance abuse. Though the risk perception of using illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin goes up with age, it did not reach the same level of risk perception as using tobacco products.
The data examined by the NSDUH does not provide enough information for abuse-prevention strategists, but it is useful as a foundation for gathering additional research.