Early School Performance Predicts Substance Abuse Rates
> 10/10/2007 10:33:52 AM

A cumulative analysis of academic and behavioral trends among Americans aged 14 to 22 seems to confirm an inverse relationship between middle-school grade point averages and the likelihood of substance abuse in early adolescence.

Drug use and behavioral problems obviously carry the potential to disrupt one's academic life, diverting crucial time and energy from school and blurring students' abilities to focus on their studies. But researchers found the equation more notable when reversed - kids with low grades are more likely to use and abuse various substances when they become available.

The Monitoring the Future project, organized by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, has followed the development of young Americans for more than three decades. Perhaps the most notable statistic to emerge from the current book-length analysis of the study's most recent results concerns the prevalence of tobacco use among adolescents and young adults: by the age of 14, more than one-quarter of students with GPAs of D or lower had become daily smokers, while almost none of their A-student peers had picked up the habit. By the age of 22, the numbers became more pronounced, with a quarter of the A students smoking and nearly half of the formerly low-performing kids addicted to tobacco. The fact that so many 22-year olds smoke is reason for concern, but the unmistakable influence of poor performance on a student's habits of consumption warrants a closer look.

The longitudinal study, which first surveyed the students in question as eighth graders in 1991, '92 and '93, found grades to be more directly correlated with cigarette smoking than alcohol or drug abuse. Lead researchers believe this trend to be a product of the behavioral aspects of tobacco use, as most smokers consume several cigarettes a day as part of what very often becomes a lifelong habit. Tobacco, though it lacks some of the intoxicating and disorienting aspects of alcohol and other drugs, retains a more persistent presence in one's daily life.  It is also more difficult for regular smokers to quit than it is for the majority of recreational drinkers or drug users (urban legends that equate smoking cessation with heroin withdrawal may be based in fact, as the two habits have nearly identical relapse rates).

The patterns of alcohol abuse are disturbing for a different reason: college students drink more on average than their less-educated peers, especially as related by binge-drinking habits. This is an issue most likely borne of environmental standards: heavy drinking is a largely accepted aspect of campus life, particularly in the abscence of parental supervision, and failing college students are more likely to have alcohol problems.

By the time subjects reach adulthood, most related statistics begin to even out: at the age of 30 or 40, college-educated individuals are slightly less likely than their high school-graduate peers to drink heavily or use illicit substances, but the numbers are approximately equal. Researchers do not in any way advocate the temperance various efforts to combat adolescent drug use, but they believe that the best way to positively affect the lifestyles of teens and young adults is to start early and focus on academics - the causal relationship between poor performance in school and later problems with substances and delinqency is far stronger than its inverse, and pre-emptive intervention may be the most productive approach. Getting kids off drugs will probably not boost overall GPAs, but getting them more involved in school will keep a good many from smoking, drinking or using illicit substances (at least until they're in high school), giving us yet another reason to reinforce the importance of an early focus on academic responsibility.

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