Kids in the Suburbs May Have Higher Risk for Future Addiction

Adolescents from the suburbs and other upper middle-class communities are two to three  times more likely to misuse, or abuse, alcohol, marijuana, stimulants such as Adderall, and club drugs like ecstasy and cocaine, according to a study that followed two groups of students through high school and four years of college. The study results emphasize a link between growing up in affluent communities and developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol in adulthood.

The American Teenage Dream: How It Can Go Wrong

The privileged teen in the U.S. is the one most likely to struggle with addiction as an adult. These are kids who, by all appearances, live out the American teenage dream. They have affluent parents, behave well, dress well, attend college-prep high schools, get good grades and perform well in extracurricular activities. They are well-positioned to enter America’s most prestigious universities, and continue on to promising careers. With all this going for them, how do so many of them end up struggling with addiction in their mid-20s?

High-Performance Anxiety: High Achievement Means High Pressure

Students who attend the best schools in their region are likely to feel a lot of pressure to achieve — their parents often have advanced degrees and expect their kids to follow in their footsteps and go to college as well. Therefore, the students feel pressured to do well on standardized tests and perform well in competitive sports or other activities in order to get into selective universities. These expectations can cause performance-related stress and anxiety, and kids under this kind of pressure need to relieve it. This can lead to a culture among privileged youth where the attitude is "we work hard and we play hard"— and often translates as hard-partying with drugs and alcohol, and peer approval or expectation to do so.

The parents’ role in this scenario complicates matters. Because their kids are performing well academically and on the sports field, parents might believe that their kids are doing well all around. But this may cause them to overlook underlying problems like stress, anxiety or mental health issues. Even if parents catch their kids drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana, they may be inclined to think “Aw, the kid works hard, I should let him blow off a little steam.”

An attitude like this among affluent parents, say the researchers, can contribute to a dynamic that leads to future addiction.

Easy Money, Easy Access, Early Use

Research shows that the earlier children start to use drugs and alcohol, and the more frequently they use, the more likely it is that they will later develop drug addiction and alcoholism. Early and frequent use is more likely among kids who grow up in an environment of permissiveness and easy money, where they are receiving a generous amount of spending money.

Affluent parents often provide their kids with an impressive “allowance”— money that enables the kids to pay for fake ID cards, and use those to purchase alcohol and drugs. Some well-to-do parents even give their kids credit cards or access to a bank account — access to funds that can provide enough drinks and drugs for an entire party crowd.

Several studies have shown that a university environment can promote risky behavior like binge drinking and drug-taking, so if a teen has already started hard-partying behavior in high school, this is likely to continue through college.

Solutions to Stop a Dangerous Trend

In an effort to solve the problem as early as possible and where it will do the most good, some researchers suggest that more addiction education and prevention programs be provided in affluent middle and high schools. These prevention programs should highlight the statistics showing that addiction is most prevalent among privileged, upper middle-class kids. As a preventive measure, it is proposed that such programs carry the message that it takes just one event of being arrested with cocaine, or hurting someone while driving under the influence, to completely derail future prospects for promising careers, influence and leadership.

It may be that a program appealing to these teens’ ambitions, and the effort they have already invested in their future achievements, is the best way to prevent them from following a path that leads to future addiction.


Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood. Suniya S. Luthar, et al, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University.  Development and Psychopathology, Cambridge University Press 2017.

Losing streak: Competitive high-school sports linked to gambling. American Friends of Tel Aviv University. The American Journal of Addictions, May 2015.

Posted on June 19th, 2017
Posted in Articles, News

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