'Jump Start' Gets High-Sensation Seeking Teens Off Drugs

September 09, 1997

A high-intensity classroom program shows promise of helping to stem increased illicit drug use among adolescents, particularly among high-sensation seekers, researchers report.

High-risk teens who took part in a substance abuse prevention and life-skills enhancement program called "Jump Start" reported decreased use of liquor and marijuana and an increased perceived risk of the dangers of substance abuse.

The study's authors, Nancy Grant Harrington, PhD, and Lewis Donohew, PhD, of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky, recruited African-American youth in the Cincinnati area with special focus on high-sensation seekers - those willing to take physical and social risks to attain varied, novel and complex sensations. The authors note that sensation seekers, about half of any age group, have significantly higher rates of drug use at elementary, junior, senior high and college levels.

The youths, 170 recruited through a summer employment program and 125 through a media campaign, had higher probabilities of using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs because they lived in neighborhoods with higher rates of violence, school drop-outs and substance abuse.

"Although there is evidence of high heritability of the sensation seeking trait, the environment also is thought to account for at least a third of its variance," the researchers write in the October 1997 issue of Health Education & Behavior. High-sensation seekers not only appear to want the altered state of consciousness provided by illicit drug use, but also the secondary source of stimulation, the risk of being caught.

The researchers developed messages to appeal to sensation seekers -novel, intense, suspenseful, fast-paced and containing antisocial humor and offbeat themes. The program emphasized the impact of peer, family, media, and sensation-seeking influences on behavior; taught decision-making and values clarification skills, and advocated taking part in sports and other pro-social activities instead of substance use, and pursuit of an education and career instead of dropping out of school and selling drugs for a living.

After the program, high-sensation seekers in both groups reported statistically significant greater decreases in uses of liquor and marijuana, compared to low-sensation seekers. High-sensation seekers in one group also reported a greater increase in negative attitudes toward drugs than did low-sensation seekers. Inexplicably, however, both high- and low-sensation seekers also reported increased use of tobacco.

"The principal objective of this study was to reach adolescent African American high-sensation seekers who were at a greater risk of drug use and to change their attitudes and behaviors in a more pro-social direction," write the authors. "Overall, results...indicate that the program brought about a number of changes in the intended direction."

"Even with all this," they write, "we are coming to realize that an even stronger focus on values shown to be especially important to the African-American culture might be beneficial. For example, components focusing on African-American heritage and responsibility to family and community could be added to enhance the African-American focus."

The study received funding from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Health Education & Behavior, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. Founded in 1950, SOPHE is an international, non-profit professional organization that promotes the health of all people through education.
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Center for Advancing Health

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