2000


From: Penn State

Teens need communication, negotiation skills to resist drugs

Helping teens avoid drugs is best accomplished by teaching them communication and negotiation skills with peers, instead of bombarding them with scare tactics and "just say no" platitudes, two Penn State researchers say.

"For most adolescents, their relationship with friends of both sexes and the need for group acceptance outweighs adult admonitions about the dangers of taking drugs," says Dr. Michelle A. Miller-Day, assistant professor of speech communication.

"Rarely are teens introduced to drugs by strangers. Usually, a school friend makes the initial offer, and the teen accepts because not to accept would risk the relationship and perhaps brand him or her as an outsider," Miller-Day notes.

"Thus, teenagers need more than just will power to resist peer pressure to use drugs. They need the ability to avoid situations, usually during leisure moments, where drug use is most likely to occur. If they can see temptation coming and plan a verbal defense, they have a much better chance of saying no without causing themselves or their peers to lose face," says Dr. Michael L. Hecht, professor and head of the speech communication department.

"School counselors, youth workers and other adults also can teach adolescents to identify and change psychological states such as boredom or restlessness that may trigger drug use," Hecht says.

Miller-Day and Hecht are two of the co-authors of the book, "Adolescent Relationships And Drug Use," published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Other authors are Jess K. Alberts and Melanie R. Trost, both associate professors of communication at Arizona State University, and Robert L. Krizek, assistant professor of communication at St. Louis University.

As an index of drug use among teens, the authors cite a sample of nearly 50,000 students surveyed by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center. The data revealed that 54.1 percent of high school students in 1998 had used an illicit drug by the time they reached their senior year. Of those students, 41.4 percent had used an illicit drug in the past 12 months. Forty-five percent of 10th graders reported using illicit drugs in their lifetime and 29 percent of 9th graders.

"Our study made it clear that teens were most vulnerable to drug use when they were hanging out -- in general, killing time," Miller-Day notes. "In these situations, adolescents, when approached to do drugs, can steer the conversation in another direction by suggesting to peers that they do something else together more interesting or exciting. This deflects the offer without offending the person making the offer."

Warnings about the dire effects of drugs, no matter how well intentioned, rarely reach the teenager. In fact, prevention messages seldom work unless they involve teen input, understand the adolescent culture and speak the teenager's language, according to Hecht.

"For example, the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations all trumpeted the `War on Drugs' as the key metaphor in combating the epidemic of drug abuse," says Hecht. "Our interviews showed that war metaphors were totally absent from adolescent talk about drugs, with the result that the language of these prevention messages alienates the very people it tries to reach."

Anti-drug campaigns designed outside the youth culture will be viewed as an adult intrusion and will largely be received with skepticism.

"What happens when teens are exposed to prevention messages such as the notorious `Reefer Madness,' produced by the federal government in 1937 on the evils of marijuana," Michelle-Day asks. "Such movies present unrealistic images of drug use that even the most naive teen knows to be false. Many of these films insult the intelligence of teenagers, who ask themselves, "Did they really think I was stupid enough to believe that?"

"Drug messages also need to be culturally appropriate," Hecht says. "Showing a Euro-American prevention video in an inner city, African-American classroom may communicate only that the video producers haven't a clue about the home and school environment of most African-American teens. This only results in alienation."

He adds, "Merely putting faces of color in a video that is written by Euro-Americans and sounds White is equally ineffective."

The researchers based their own findings on several separate surveys involving hundreds of high school and college students.

Miller-Day and Hecht also are principal investigators, along with Dr. John W. Graham, Penn State professor of biobehavioral health, and Dr. Flavio Marsiglia, associate professor of social work at Arizona State University, on a federally funded initiative, "Drug Resistance Strategies Project," to create, implement and evaluate a culturally appropriate substance abuse prevention program for seventh grade classes in 35 schools in Phoenix, Ariz. The results of their study indicate that the program is working. For more information, go to: http://www.la.psu.edu/speech/drsp/drsp.htm












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