Rich Kids and Drugs: Addiction May Hit Wealthy Students Hardest

Two teen girls go shopping at upscale stores.
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Teens who attend high-achieving schools in well-to-do communities may be more vulnerable to drug and alcohol problems than their less well-off peers, a new study from the Northeast U.S. suggests.

Researchers found that by age 26, upper-middle-class young adults' lifetime chances of being diagnosed with an addiction to drugs or alcohol were two to three times higher, on average, than the national rates for men and women of the same age. The findings were published online today (May 31) in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

These are alarming rates of addictions to drugs and alcohol for young adults, said lead study author Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today’s Parents]

Many people perceive addiction as a problem that affects mostly those in poorer neighborhoods, Luthar said. But this study shows there is a significant risk for substance abuse at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, among kids who grow up in wealthy, white collar families, Luthar told Live Science.

This is not the first time researchers have linked high rates of drug and alcohol problems with young adults from higher-income households. In 2009, kids from upper-middle-class backgrounds were identified as an "at-risk" group for substance misuse, and several studies since then have found high levels of binge drinking and marijuana use among young adults in well-educated, well-off families.

In general, previous studies looked at rates of alcohol and drug use patterns in high school students. Less was known about how substance use rates changed when students attended college and reached their early adulthood years. The new study, by contrast, looked at two groups of high school seniors and followed them into later years.

The students in the new study attended extremely competitive high schools in two different states in the Northeast U.S. The schools had high concentrations of well-educated, high-earning, professional parents.

One group of 272 students was followed from 12th grade through their first four years of college, until age 22. A second group of 255 students was tracked for a period of about 10 years, from their senior year of high school, through college and afterward, until age 27.

All of the participants completed yearly, online questionnaires in which they were asked about their use of drugs and alcohol during both the past year and past month. The researchers also conducted phone interviews with the participants, to evaluate whether they met the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse or dependence, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

Overall, the study found higher rates of drinking to the point of intoxication and the use of pot among the wealthier students than among kids in the general U.S. population. Rich kids had rates that were at least double the national U.S. average for taking stimulant drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, as well as for experimenting with cocaine, the study found.

By age 22, lifetime rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol were 11 to 16 percent among women from affluent families, which is similar to the national norms; the rates were 19 to 27 percent among men from affluent families, twice the national norms, according to the study.

But a more troubling trend emerged by age 26: Lifetime rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol were 19 to 24 percent among women from wealthier upbringings and 23 to 40 percent among men from those families. These rates were three times higher than the national average for women, and two times higher in men. [25 Odd Facts About Marijuana]

Luthar said that she was surprised by the high rates of alcohol and drug dependence the study found in early adulthood, as well as the high rates of use of cocaine and party drugs, such as ecstasy.

When kids from affluent communities go through adolescence, they may experiment with drugs and alcohol, perhaps as a way to blow off steam from the pressures of attending high-achieving schools, Luthar said. Well-off parents may think that their kids will probably grow out of it, she said.

However, this study reveals that many of these high-achieving young people are not growing out of their drug and alcohol use as young adults, Luthar said.

Honest conversations

When asked for some possible reasons to explain the study findings, Luthar pointed to the academic pressure to achieve in schools, the financial means the students have to obtain fake IDs and gain access to drugs and alcohol, as well as a peer group culture in which the use of drugs and alcohol at parties is accepted and expected.

She said she also suspects that parents of high-achieving students might not take their teens' use of drug or alcohol as seriously as other parents, because these high-achieving kids might still be doing well academically.

Since the study was small and focused on kids in one part of the U.S., additional research is needed to understand trends in affluent young adults across the country, Luthar said. More work also needs to be done to see how substance use changes as these individuals get older and take on new adult roles, such as getting married or becoming parents, she said.

Kids in high-achieving schools have many things going for them, but they can also be quite vulnerable, Luthar said. That's why more emphasis should be placed on minimizing alcohol and drug use problems early on, she noted.

Drinking and taking drugs are not benign behaviors, and if young people use these substances frequently and for a long time, it can put them on the road to addiction or other negative outcomes, Luthar said. For example, it takes only one incident of driving drunk for a serious accident to occur that might change a life forever, she said.

Parents need to communicate openly and lovingly with teenagers about the risks of alcohol and drug use, and also help kids to maintain a realistic perspective on their academic achievements and desire to attend the best colleges, Luthar said.

In addition, parents can point out role models to teens to show them that many bright, talented young people go on to have successful careers and fulfilling lives without attending the best colleges, Luthar said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.