Teens or pre-teens who begin puberty earlier than their classmates are likely to speed up their experimentation with alcohol and other drugs according to a study published in the October issue of Addiction. The research by the University of Texas Austin and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looks at when best to apply parenting savvy to prevent or reduce alcohol abuse by teens and young adults.
Adolescents who believe they are more advanced in puberty than their peers are more likely to have used nicotine, alcohol and marijuana – the three drugs tallied in the study – compared with other students who believe they are on-time or late developing. The findings are mainly due to differences in use at age 11, which is customarily sixth grade. Puberty typically begins in girls between ages nine and 13, which is slightly earlier than boys, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The researchers arrived at the connection between early puberty and substance use after studying nearly 6,500 North Carolina boys and girls of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, aged 11 to 17, who were questioned about use of the three drugs over previous 90 days. They were also given a questionnaire to determine when they began puberty.
"We all go through puberty. We remember it being either an easy transition or a very difficult one," said Jessica Duncan Cance, a researcher in the study. "While puberty is often thought of as a solely biological process, our research has shown that pubertal development is a combination of biological, psychological and social processes that all likely interact to influence risk-taking behavior like substance use.
"Our study suggests that being the first girl in the class to need a bra, for example, prompts or exacerbates existing psychological and social aspects that can, in turn, lead to teen drinking, substance use and other risky behaviors early in life," Cance said.
Age of first use also is one of the predictors of alcohol use disorders, including the disease of alcoholism, later in life. (See related examiner.com article) According to research posted online for Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology in December, early use coupled with a family history of alcohol problems increases the alcoholism risk considerably. That study's lead author Levent Kirisci of the University of Pittsburgh noted, “[It] does not provide evidence that early onset age predicts alcohol use disorders or substance use disorders in general, it does show that the earlier a child starts using drugs or alcohol, the higher their transmissible risk is,” for children who already have a family risk. “These findings underscore the importance of parent-guided prevention with high-risk youths prior to first substance exposure.”