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Updated 10:00 AM October 15, 2007




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Early school success protects against drug use

Adolescents who do well in school are less likely to smoke, drink or do drugs. But which comes first: drug use or school failure?

Researchers at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) provide an answer in a new book. Patterns of educational success or failure are well established for most adolescents by the time they reach the end of eighth grade, while drug use has only begun to emerge.

When more opportunities for substance use do emerge, students already doing well in school are less likely to engage in such behaviors, whereas those doing poorly are more likely to do so, the researchers say.

"Grade-point averages at the end eighth grade are strongly linked to smoking at that time, and strongly predictive of later smoking," says social psychologist Jerald Bachman.

The researchers tracked a national sample of more than 3,000 young people during an eight-year interval extending from mid-adolescence — average age 14 — to young adulthood — average age 22. This is a period when some young people drop out of high school, others graduate and many go on to college. It also is a period when many experiment with cigarettes, alcohol and illicit drugs, and some become regular users.

"The beauty of tracking individuals through this crucial period of maturation is that we can see which events come first, and thus gain important evidence about what causes what," Bachman says.

Bachman is the lead author of "The Education-Drug Use Connection: How Successes and Failures in School Relate to Adolescent Smoking, Drinking, Drug Use, and Delinquency," published in September by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates/Taylor & Francis. His coauthors are social scientists Patrick O'Malley, John Schulenberg, Lloyd Johnston, Peter Freedman-Doan and Emily Messersmith.

The book reports a new set of findings from the ISR Monitoring the Future project, which has studied drug use among youth and young adults for more than 30 years. The new findings are based on a special nationwide sample of adolescents who were first surveyed as eighth-graders in 1991, 1992 and 1993, and who then completed a series of follow-up surveys at two-year intervals.

The researchers found that the strongest and most long-lasting effects of early educational success or failure are not on drinking or illicit drug use, but on cigarette use.

Smoking rates also are strongly linked with later educational attainment. By age 22, half of all high school dropouts were daily smokers, compared with only one-in-five of those with three or more years of college.

The researchers also found that earlier educational experiences, such as poor grades, suspension or expulsion from school, predicted the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana or cocaine.

But the effects of educational setbacks on marijuana or cocaine use were less and not as long-lasting as the impact on cigarette use.

The findings for alcohol use, and occasional heavy drinking, showed yet another pattern. Like cigarette use, alcohol consumption emerges fairly early. It involves larger proportions of adolescents, but usually is far less intensive.

Earlier Monitoring the Future research showed that heavy drinking by college students clearly is linked to their lifestyles while in college. College students are more likely to live away from their parents' homes, and they also are more likely to delay getting married and having children than those the same age who are not in college.

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