How Many Pre-teens are Curious About the Use of Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Products?

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How Many Pre-teens are Curious About the Use of Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Products?  

Jim Windell

             At what age are kids curious about alcohol and drugs? Do most parents begin establishing rules early in the life of their children about the use of substances and before the curiosity begins?

            These were questions that were asked – and answered – in a new study out of the University of Michigan. The new study, published recently in Drugs & Alcohol Dependence Reports, was led by a University of Michigan researcher using data from a large national project. In the project nearly 12,000 nine- and 10-year-olds were asked a series of questions.

           Previous studies show that at age nine or 10, one in five of the children had sipped alcohol but they were otherwise “substance naïve” and had not used nicotine, marijuana or more than sips of alcohol. All were aware of what these substances are. Also, other U-M researchers who run the Monitoring the Future survey have shown that about one in five 14-year-olds have used alcohol at least once in the past year, and tobacco and marijuana use are both reported by 11%.

           Meghan Martz, Ph.D., lead author of the research report, is a research assistant professor specializing in the development of substance use disorders in the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. She and her U. of M. colleagues are part of the national team studying thousands of children and parents over many years through a national project called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Hundreds of children and their parents have enrolled at U. of M. in the study. The findings in the study are some of the first ever about substance use curiosity and access in this age group.

           The results of the study show that even though kids of ages nine and 10 may only be in the fourth or fifth grade still one in 10 pre-teen children already say they’re curious about using alcohol or tobacco products; one in 50 say they’re curious about using marijuana. As many as three percent of the nearly 12,000 pre-teens surveyed say they already have a friend who uses one of these substances. And those who said they did were also much more likely to be curious about trying alcohol or tobacco and other nicotine-containing products themselves.

           Meanwhile, up to 35% of the children’s parents said their kids may have easy access to alcohol at home, while smaller percentages said the same about tobacco (7%) or marijuana (3%). About 25% of parents said they hadn’t yet set rules for their pre-teen children about whether they’re allowed to use these substances.

           The findings show considerable variation by gender, race/ethnicity and family income in many of the measures. For instance, generally, boys were more likely to be curious about substances than girls. Black parents were much more likely than other parents to have a rule that their children may not use alcohol, tobacco or marijuana, and low-income parents were slightly more likely than those with middle or high incomes to have such a rule. Pre-teens whose parents made $100,000 or more per year were much more likely to be curious about alcohol, and their parents were more likely to say it was readily available in the home. Lower-income children, with family incomes of $50,000 or less, were slightly more likely to be curious about nicotine and marijuana, and to have it available in the home.

           Across all groups, kids were more likely to be curious about alcohol or nicotine if their parents said that these substances are readily available in the home. The same was true for nicotine curiosity among kids whose parents hadn’t made specific rules about their use of tobacco or other nicotine-containing substances.

           According to Dr. Martz, this information could help future efforts to tailor preventive messages and measures, and identify children most at risk of future problems. “We were very surprised by the percentage of parents – more than 25% of the entire group -- who hadn’t made any explicit rules about substance use for children this age. Compared to all other race/ethnicity groups, Black parents were the most likely to have made rules against substance use, suggesting this subgroup in particular may be using early protective strategies.”

           “The earlier in adolescence a child begins using these substances, the greater the potential impact on brain development and functioning,” Dr. Martz explained. “Their household environments and messaging from parents can play a major role at this age, while the influence of peers will become more important over time.”

           To read the original study, find it with this reference:

Meghan E. Martz, Mary M. Heitzeg, Krista M. Lisdahl, Christine C. Cloak, Sarah W. Feldstein Ewing, Raul Gonzalez, Frank Haist, Kimberly H. LeBlanc, Pamela A. Madden, J. Megan Ross, Kenneth J. Sher, Susan F. Tapert, Wesley K. Thompson, & Natasha E. Wade. (2022). Individual-, peer-, and parent-level substance use-related factors among 9- and 10-year-olds from the ABCD Study: Prevalence rates and sociodemographic differences. Drug and Alcohol Dependence Reports, 3. 100037, ISSN 2772-7246;

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