Teens Who Smoke or Are Depressed Less Willing to Delay Rewards

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By nature, people tend to want to be rewarded for their behavior now rather than later. Psychologists call the preference for short-term rewards over long-term rewards delay discounting. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. universities explored the ways in which delay discounting and depression affect the chances that any given teenager will begin smoking.

Delaying Reward

Most adults weigh the potential outcomes of their behavior before acting. If a negative outcome seems more likely than a positive outcome, the behavior under consideration will probably be seen as relatively undesirable. However, if a positive outcome seems more likely than a negative outcome, the behavior will probably be seen as relatively desirable. The situation gets a bit more complex when it calls for an individual to choose between short-term rewards and long-term rewards. For instance, a person who really likes candy must choose between the short-term pleasure of eating lots of candy now and the long-term health rewards of keeping candy consumption within certain limits.

Generally speaking, most people pay less heed to long-term rewards than they pay to short-term rewards; in other words, they discount the importance of any reward that calls for a delay in fulfillment. Still, long-term rewards don’t lose all importance, and in many cases adults have enough self-control to let long-term considerations take precedence over short-term considerations. However, some adults display more ability to control their short-term impulses than others. In addition, teenagers—who are still undergoing development in the brain areas required for effective self-control—typically have more difficulty controlling their impulses than adults.

Depression Basics

Depression is a term that can be used to describe the basic effects of a range of mental health conditions called depressive disorders. However, in most cases, the term serves as convenient shorthand for major depression, the frequently severe illness known for its ability to seriously degrade mood, thought processes and certain key body functions. Some people have genetic risks for developing major depression or other forms of depression. Other potential overlapping or independent risk factors for depressive disorders include traumatic events that occur within or outside the family unit, specific details of any given individual’s personality or disposition, and chemical imbalances and certain other problems with day-to-day body function.

Impact on Teen Smoking Risks

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Kentucky and The Ohio State University used an examination of 80 teenagers to assess the relationship between delay discounting, depression and the chances of being a smoker. They undertook this project because, while doctors and researchers already know that depression symptoms and high levels of delay discounting tend to make teen smoking more likely, they don’t know very much about how these two factors interact. Each of the 80 participants was classified as a smoker or a non-smoker; the participants were also classified as affected by depression or not affected by depression.

After comparing the classifications of all the teenagers, the researchers came to several conclusions. First, they concluded that depression symptoms and delay discounting behaviors tend to appear together in any given teenager. They also concluded that teen smokers as a whole tend to be less willing to delay rewards than teens who don’t smoke; this fact holds true whether or not a teenage smoker experiences depression symptoms. In addition, the researchers concluded that depressed, non-smoking teenagers as a whole tend to be less willing to delay rewards than non-smoking teens unaffected by depression. Finally, the researchers concluded that teens who smoke and depressed teens who don’t smoke have an essentially equal tendency to prefer short-term rewards to long-term rewards.

The authors of the study believe they have made a substantial contribution to the understanding of the connection between depression, delay discounting and smoking in teenagers. However, they also point to a need for future research efforts that make thorough comparisons between the singular impact on teen smoking risks produced by either delay discounting or depression, and the combined impact on teen smoking risks produced by the overlapping effects of depression and delay discounting.

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