Affluent youth prone to high distress, substance abuse

September 17, 2002

Affluent, suburban middle-school students may face certain pressures that make them susceptible to depression and more likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol, according to a new study.

Researchers Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., and Bronwyn E. Becker of Teachers College, Columbia University studied 302 students in sixth and seventh grades who live in an affluent community in the Northeast where median annual family income in the year 2000 was almost $102,000. The 1999 national median income was $40,816, according to the U.S. Census.

They found an "unusually high" incidence of depressive symptoms among the girls compared with national averages, high occurrence of substance use among both boys and girls, a connection between distress levels and substance use and a tendency of peers to "actively approve" of substance use among boys. The seventh-grade students studied were almost 13 years old on average, while the sixth-graders were almost 12.

"Explorations of potential pathways to adjustment problems revealed that achievement pressures (internalized and from parents) can be implicated," the researchers write. "Also of apparent significance is isolation from adults, particularly levels of perceived closeness with mothers, and for girls, the presence of adult supervision in the hours immediately after school."

Achievement pressures, Luthar and Becker note, include messages about parental values as well as "maladaptive perfectionism" - not merely striving for high and realistic goals, but developing an "excessive investment in accomplishments and need to avoid failure."

"In upwardly mobile suburban communities," they write, "there is often a ubiquitous emphasis on ensuring that children secure admission to stellar colleges. As a result, many youngsters feel highly driven to excel not only at academics but also at multiple extra-curricular activities, with these pressures beginning as early as the middle school years."

Use of drugs or alcohol was three times as high among seventh graders than among sixth graders. In the sixth-grade sample, 15 percent of boys and 11 percent of girls drank alcohol at least once in the preceding year, compared with 35 percent of both girls and boys in seventh-grade. Of those, 9 percent of seventh-grade girls and 28 percent of seventh-grade boys had been intoxicated at least once in the previous year.

Seven percent of sixth-grade boys and 8 percent of sixth-grade girls smoked cigarettes, compared with 20 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls in seventh-grade. Marijuana use was not present among the sixth-graders, but by seventh grade, 6 percent of girls and 7 percent of boys had used that drug at least once in the previous year.

Boys in seventh grade were much more likely than sixth-grade boys and girls in both grades to regularly smoke or use alcohol or drugs. Eighteen percent had used alcohol at least once or more a month on average and 11 percent had smoked that frequently, while 7 percent had become intoxicated and 7 percent had used marijuana an average of once or more a month.

Luthar and Becker note that previous research has shown that "middle school boys who were best liked by their peers came to be among the most gregarious in high school, with gregariousness involving 'partying' and heavy drinking." Seventh-grade boys in this study who smoked or used drugs and alcohol were among the most popular in their peer group, although researchers said some of them seemed to elicit particularly negative reactions from peers.

The researchers found that seventh-grade girls in the affluent suburban sample were about twice as likely to show clinically significant depression as same-aged girls in general are.

Girls, they note, are "far more likely to contend with conflicting messages from the peer group and from the media, that displays of academic competence are 'non-feminine' and thus undesirable.'" But those girls who indicated a close relationship with their fathers were more likely to have high academic grades, perhaps because fathers are "individuals who often model goal-directed, achievement-oriented behaviors," the researchers suggest.

The study also found that students who had the closest relationships with their mothers were the least likely to smoke or use drugs and alcohol or to show symptoms of distress. Relationships with fathers did not figure as prominently, except in girls' academic grades. The researchers found that boys were more likely than girls to be unsupervised after school, but girls who were unsupervised were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Heather Andrews at 212.678.3771 or
Child Development: Contact Angela Dahm Mackay at (734) 998-7310 or

Center for Advancing Health

Related Alcohol Articles from Brightsurf:

Alcohol use changed right after COVID-19 lockdown
One in four adults reported a change in alcohol use almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued: 14% reported drinking more alcohol and reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who did not drink and those whose use stayed the same.

Changes in hospitalizations for alcohol use disorder in US
Changes over nearly two decades in the rate of hospitalizations and in-hospital deaths from alcohol use disorder in the US were examined in this study.

Associations of alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced passing out with risk of dementia
The risk of future dementia associated with overall alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced loss of consciousness in a population of current drinkers was examined in this observational study with more than 131,000 adults.

New alcohol genes uncovered
Do you have what is known as problematic alcohol use?

Does estrogen influence alcohol use disorder?
A new study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that high estrogen levels may make alcohol more rewarding to female mice.

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.

Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).

Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.

Read More: Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to