HUMAN BEHAVIOR | Boys with social difficulties most susceptible to early substance use: study
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Boys who enter sixth-grade with co-occurring social skills, anxiety, learning and conduct problems are at the greatest risk of developing aggressive behavior and using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana by the end of eighth grade, a study of the University of Illinois (UI) found.
The researchers found four distinct patterns of co-occurring social-emotional learning and behavioral problems among the more than 2,600 middle-school boys.
At four time points, beginning in the fall term of sixth grade and ending in the spring term of eighth grade, the students were surveyed on their verbal, relational and physical aggression and their use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana during the prior 30 days.
At each time point, a teacher also assessed each boy’s social skills development, symptoms of anxiety and learning problems. Teachers reported on the students’ conduct, such as how frequently they skipped classes and stole from other students.
Boys who had significant problems in all four domains — social skills, anxiety, learning and conduct — were the most susceptible to engaging in aggression and substance use, the researchers found.
Although this group composed only 6.3 percent of the study population, prior research has shown that youths with these characteristics are at the greatest risk of the poorest outcomes across their lifespans.
Conversely, the researchers found that boys who scored well on social, emotional, learning and conduct – a group that composed more than 61 percent of the sample – showed only small increases in physical aggression and substance use.
The third risk pattern involved boys who had poor social skills in addition to learning and conduct problems. While these boys entered sixth grade exhibiting the most behavioral problems, their physical and relational aggression and cigarette smoking declined over time and their alcohol and marijuana use didn’t vary.
The researchers also identified a fourth distinct risk pattern: a group of boys who may be underserved by practitioners. Boys in this group, composing about 15 percent of the sample population, had positive social skills but moderate problems with learning, anxiety and conduct.
“Although these boys may be socially skilled, their other problems can lead to increased aggression and substance use as they progress through middle school,” said UI social work professor Kevin Tan, the principal investigator of the study.
Alcohol and marijuana use increased among boys in this group, but at lower rates than their peers in the high-risk group. The researchers suggested that these social boys may be more susceptible to negative peer influences that lead to experimentation with alcohol and drugs.
The data used in the study were drawn from the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, a middle-school violence prevention study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study has been published in the Journal of Early Adolescence.