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Adolescent substance use: Understanding risk from a developmental perspective

Kathleen M O'Rourke, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation investigates high school students' drug use and the variables identified as risk factors for such use. Specifically, the purpose of this research was to analyze drug use data with regards to levels of Subjective Distress, Parental Bonding, Parental Supervision, and Sensation Seeking, to understand how experimental marijuana users experience these risk factors when compared to other types of drug users. This research posits that experimental marijuana use may be more reflective of adolescent development than of pathology. The theoretical construct underlying this research is the perspective that certain behaviors are deemed harmful based more on moral judgments and the social construction of risk as opposed to the actual danger the behavior poses for the individual. This research used data from a cross-sectional survey given to high school students from a New England college town. Statistical analyses was conducted on the responses of a quantitative, Likert style survey which included 452 questions all derived from existing national surveys. The survey was voluntary and administered to 993 students in grades nine through twelve in January of 2000. The results indicated that a simple, stepwise progression between the level of drug use and the risk factors Parental Bonding, Parental Supervision, and Subjective Distress did not exist. In most cases, experimental marijuana users were more like abstainers than other drug users. The relationship between Parental Supervision and drug use was more related to an adolescent's age than to the actual supervision. Consideration of gender differences revealed that the genders experience the risk factors, specifically parental bonding, differently. Females, when compared to males, did not experience as strong a relationship between parental bonding and drug use. The application of a quadratic regression equation revealed that males' relationship between drug use and parental bonding was more complex; moderate levels of parental bonding predicted drug use more strongly than low levels of parental bonding. The results suggest that future research must be more sophisticated in its analyses of drug use and adolescents, considering the developmental stage of the adolescent, the type of drug used, and questioning the assumption that experimental marijuana use is unequivocally harmful.

Subject Area

Public health|Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

O'Rourke, Kathleen M, "Adolescent substance use: Understanding risk from a developmental perspective" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3118320.