The idea that using drugs and alcohol can improve a person’s chances of success later in life seems absurd. However, according to data from a recent study conducted by Michelle M. Englund of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol are more likely to have higher educations and stable romances in early adulthood than teens who abstain. Englund surveyed 159 teens, all born as first children to low-income families. When they were 17-and-a-half, the teens were enrolled into substance-abuse interventions depending on how often they used drugs and alcohol. Englund then evaluated their outcomes in various areas, including work, education, intimate relationships, and overall adjustment, when they reached age 26.
Surprisingly, Englund found that the teens who experimented with drugs and alcohol achieved better outcomes on all measures when compared with those who never used, those who abused, and those who engaged in at-risk use. The findings suggest that substance-use levels have very different effects on life outcomes. Although the fact experimenters fared better than abstainers may seem strange, Englund believes that this pattern supports theories of normal adolescent development. Another interesting discovery was that the at-risk users achieved similar educational outcomes as the experimenters, which exceeded those of both the abstainers and abusers. One explanation for this could be that these individuals developed a strong academic foundation before they used drugs and alcohol, giving them an educational advantage over the other groups.
The results of this study cast a new light on the long-term effects of drug use at varying levels, but the sample size was relatively small. Because of this, the subgroups of various drug-use levels were even smaller, which could limit the findings. Englund hopes that future research draws on a broader sample in order to get a more substantial view of the varying rates of drug and alcohol use among teens and the long-term effects they have. But she believes that, for now, her findings show that some levels of drug and alcohol use may not result in negative outcomes for all users. “Overall, the results of this study suggest that experimentation with substances may be not only normative in adolescence but also predictive of developmental competence in early adulthood,” Englund said.
Englund, M. M., Siebenbruner, J., Oliva, E. M., Egeland, B., Chung, C.-T., Long, J. D. (2012). The developmental significance of late adolescent substance use for early adult functioning. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030229
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