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Our Kids are Not Alright; High-achieving schools and risks for addiction

Posted Jun 13, 2017 
From Psychology Today

“Mom stop! Everyone drinks!”
Thus spoke your tenth grader as you found vodka in her closet.
As a parent, should you calm down, or be alarmed?

Be concerned, if not alarmed, according to new research. In a study of teens from high achieving schools, we found troubling rates of  addiction  as we followed them across young adulthood. 
Our research on substance use among this subgroup began with a fortuitous discovery almost two decades ago, in a study comparing inner-city students with their suburban counterparts. To our surprise, we found that the latter reported using drug and alcohol use much more frequently than their counterparts in poverty, and also more often than those in national normative samples.

Since that time, we’ve replicated findings of elevated problems across different high-achieving schools across the country - private and public schools, in cities and in suburbs. Aside from drug and alcohol use, our findings have shown rates of serious rule-breaking behaviors, as well as  depression  and anxiety, that are two to three times those of national norms.

In the most recent study published with my student Phillip Small and colleague Lucia Ciciolla, the question we addressed was whether the frequent substance use recurrently seen in high school might dissipate subsequently (once the college admissions pressures were over, for example). In other words, was this largely an adolescent-limited phenomenon? 

Results showed that it was not. In annual assessments, we documented frequency of using alcohol and different  drugs , as well as  psychiatric diagnoses of addiction, in two cohorts of youth. Both cohorts were assessed as high school seniors, and one was followed then through college (ages 19-22) and the other through two years post-college (ages 22-27).

In both cohorts, rates were consistently elevated, relative to norms, in  drinking  to intoxication, and in the use of  marijuana , stimulants such as Adderrall, club drugs such as ecstacy, and  cocaine

Still more troubling were rates of addiction – that is, not just  abuse  of substances but diagnoses of dependence, as determined by one-on-one psychiatric interviews. By the age of 26, these rates were 2-3 times those in norms, with diagnostic criteria met by 23-40% of men, and by19-24% women.
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What gives -- why such high rates? Several factors are likely implicated. 
Foremost is the pressure these youngsters experience - to excel across multiple academic courses, and multiple extracurriculars. A common refrain heard is, "we work hard, and we play hard". And the "playing" involves parties with drugs and alcohol. 

A second factor is peer group norms that tacitly encourage substance use. It is the rare social get-together that is substance-free.

Also implicated, of course, is having the money to buy substances plus fake ID's of the best quality. Not all kids in high-achieving schools are affluent but most are (real estate prices are related, for example, to schools' standardized test scores).

Finally, we as  parents  might minimize detected use for a couple of reasons. One is because these kids are able to maintain impressive performance academically and at extracurriculars, despite using (and sometimes because of it, procuring stimulants to pull all-nighters). 

The other reason is because it is frightening. Little scares a parent more than the prospect that her child is putting himself in danger, and acknowledging this squarely is deeply unsettling. 
But acknowledge we must. The same longitudinal study showed that back in high school, if the kids had believed that their parents would have few repercussions for detected substance use, they were much more likely to show elevated use then, and also subsequently, across adulthood. 

What to do, to mitigate this problem? 

For one thing, kids and parents simply cannot afford to be dismissive about substance use as just something that “something all kids do” at high-achieving schools. In addition to risks for long-term addiction documented here, it would help for parents and kids to recognize that just a single incident of hurting someone in a DUI accident, or being arrested with cocaine, could derail the high-profile positions careers toward which these work so strenuously.

Additionally, parents and educators would do well to think carefully about the unrelenting pressures that our kids experience in their pursuit of top-tier colleges. We need to help them understand that there is in fact life,  wisdom , financial solvency,  creativity , and yes,  happiness , beyond the walls of the Ivy Leagues.

And we urgently need more research into addiction in kids in upwardly mobile communities. Almost fifty years ago, developmental researchers established that children in chronic poverty were at high risk for maladjustment. This led to a rich body of research on how to minimize risks, and foster  resilience  among these children and their families.   

We now need the same dedicated research on kids who grow up in pressure-cooker, high achieving schools. Paradoxical though it may seem, these ostensibly privileged youth, many of who start experimenting early and often with drinking and drugs, could well be among the groups at highest risk for  alcoholism  and addiction in adulthood.

It may not be time for alarm, but it certainly time for concern. Let us not trivialize kids’ “getting wasted”, but instead understand that much can be at stake for this generation– with the high-octane lifestyles they bring to their school work, their extracurriculars, and to the ways in which they play.  

About the Author:

Suniya Luthar, Ph.D. is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.  

Meet the Free Online Tool that Assesses Your Depression Risk
This test can help you identify early warning signs of depression.
Posted Oct 08, 2015

The following is an excerpt from a full article

Prevalence of Depression

One in 10 Americans has depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet the vast majority of people don’t even know they have it. The symptoms of depression are often attributed to other issues, like stress or aging . As a result, most people never seek treatment.

Undiagnosed and untreated depression tends to get worse over time. And in worst case scenarios, it can be fatal. But today you have an opportunity to help others recognize their risk factors for depression.

Treatment for Depression

Depression is very treatable. In fact, the National Institute of Health reports that up to 80% of those treated for depression see an improvement in their symptoms within four to six weeks of treatment. But, people can’t be treated for depression unless they’ve been diagnosed.

Depression screenings are an effective first step toward getting a proper diagnosis. A 2009 research study by the University of Connecticut showed that 55% of participants who completed an online depression screening sought treatment within three months.

Depression treatment may consist of therapy , medication , or a combination of the two. But ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide which course of treatment to pursue.

How to Get Involved

for yourself. It’s free, anonymous, and only takes a few minutes of your time. If your answers indicate signs of depression, the screening tool will give you information about local services that can help. You can always start by talking with your doctor as well.

Talking about depression and mental health issues helps reduce the stigma that’s often attached to mental illness. It’s also a good time to educate people about how to  build mental strength  and reduce their risk factors for depression.

About the Author

The Bully on the Screen
Cyber-bullying is a serious childhood threat.

Posted on June 12, 2017
From Psychology Today

Brandy Vela, a sweet faced 18-year-old with cascading brown locks, smiles radiantly in her picture (not the one shown here). A good student, with lots of friends, this Houston area high school student sent an email to her family, informing them she was going to kill herself. When her father hurried home, Brandy had a gun pointed at her chest, and despite her father’s pleas, pulled the trigger. Brandy was another victim of relentless cyber- bullying . Months of harassing emails, mostly focused on her weight, were soon followed by fake Facebook accounts, complete with her picture and phone number, offering free sex . When she changed her phone number, the cyber-bullies soon found her again. The source was an untraceable cell phone. Despite reporting the harassment to school and police, the authorities could do nothing.

With the explosion of social media channels, the proliferation of screens and the rapid increase in screen time, children are more exposed than ever to cyber threats. In a 2015 survey, 92 percent of teens said they go online daily and one in four reported being online “constantly.” It is no exaggeration to refer to cyber-bullying as an epidemic. Yet, psychologists are just now beginning to address its extent, determinants and consequences.

What constitutes cyber-bullying?

Bullying in general involves negative, aggressive acts designed to harm another, usually someone perceived as weaker and more vulnerable. Cyber-bullying includes posting harassing or threatening texts, tweets, or emails; posting or commenting aggressively about pictures, often photo-shopped or otherwise doctored, to social media, online impersonation and identity theft, outing someone who wishes to keep personal information private; “trolling” (i.e., continuously posting offensive comments); and “griefing” (bullying in online gaming communities). In some cases, cyber-bullies even successfully hound their victim to commit suicide .

Although harassment using phone calls is generally not included in cyber-bullying definitions, it is another way to mediate aggression through technology.
As social media platforms proliferate, so do the varieties of cyber-bullying. The very freedom of the internet, enshrining free speech, makes texting, tweeting and emailing threatening, aggressive content more likely and less taboo, as those online habituate to it. In addition, the current political climate, with extreme polarization, demonization of the “other,” and the modeling effects of powerful politicians tweeting threats, may contribute to a “normalization’ of aggressive messaging using social media.

How frequently does cyber-bullying occur?

The answer is imprecise, since definitions and assessment methods vary. For example, in a 2012 UK survey of 325 children in grades seven to nine, 11 percent of the children said they were victims of cyber-bullying. A U.S. survey, conducted in six schools with third to fifth graders, one-third of whom had their own cell phones, found that nearly 18 percent reported victimization. Another survey of one Midwestern high school found that 35 percent of the teens said that they had been cyber-bullied at least once. As digital and mobile devices proliferate in the hands of ever younger children, the likelihood of cyber-bullying increases.

Getting a handle on the prevalence of cyber-bullying is difficult, for a number of reasons. First, the rapid dissemination of digital media makes studies conducted a few years ago already outdated. Second, children vary in what they consider cyber-bullying. In the UK study cited above, 29 percent of the children said that they had gotten an email or text that “made them feel bad” but they did not consider it cyber-bullying. Thus, children, as well as parents and teachers, may have differing implicit ideas about what constitutes cyber-bullying and different thresholds for labelling messages. For example, children may not consider an isolated threatening or demeaning message to be “cyber-bullying,” until it becomes part of a recurring pattern. Thirdly, we currently lack systematic population level statistics on the incidence of being a victim of bullying. Most studies have small samples that preclude generalization to larger populations. Finally, we continue to define cyber-bullying narrowly, in terms of direct victimization. This means that we know little about second-order effects. In the above UK survey, one-third of the children said they knew another child who was the victim of cyber-bullying.

It would be useful to reframe cyber-bullying as a social network , rather than an individual, phenomenon. In the former perspective, one would look for contagion effects, impacts of witnessing or even talking about cyber-bullying, and effects of peer group norms. In this way, one could map the ecology of cyber-bullying.

Child characteristics . Being a victim of cyber-bullying has been associated with risk factors, such as social isolation , developmental difficulties and economic stress . In a comprehensive review of studies conducted from 2008 to 2014, Livingstone and Smith concluded: “Children who are already vulnerable offline are likely also to be vulnerable online” (p.646). Adolescents who are overweight and LGBTQ teens are especially vulnerable as targets. Spending more time online, regardless of other risk factors, is associated with both receiving and perpetrating cyberbullying, along with other harmful online activities, such as sexting, contact with strangers, pornography and identity theft.

Bullies and their victims are not necessarily two distinct groups. Risks for bullying include sensation-seeking , low self-esteem , psychological problems and poor social support. Victims of bullying may retaliate and become perpetrators, locked in a negative cycle.

The social ecology of cyberbullying . Like face to face bullying, the cyber variety does not take place in a vacuum. Child characteristics may make some vulnerable to being victims, bullies, or both, but the social climate can nurture or help extinguish cyberbullying. Schools, youth groups and families differ in their views. In assessments of social norms surrounding bullying, children have been asked to respond to questions like: “Kids who get picked on usually deserve it.” When children assent to statements like this, they are more likely to be involved in bullying, as perpetrators, victims or both.

The social climate is implicitly indicted when we look at how children respond to being victims or witnesses of cyber-bullying. In the survey of third to fifth graders cited earlier, nearly 40 percent of victims knew the identity of the bully, but half did nothing about it. Of those children who told someone, it was usually a friend, almost never a teacher. In the UK survey of seventh to ninth graders, children reported deleting messages or responding in kind (and thereby engaging in retaliatory bullying).Fewer than half showed the messages to anyone else.

What can be done? Firm anti-bullying policies in schools can help change the social climate. Because most cyberbullying takes place outside of school, few schools have clear policies in place. This can inadvertently send a signal that such bullying (and other forms) is just part—albeit a painful part—of growing up. Families, particularly parents and older siblings, can make clear that bullying in all forms has zero tolerance. Parents can monitor and control online time more closely.

Currently, this is especially difficult, as aggressive, demeaning and threatening tweets have entered public discourse and appear implicitly, if not explicitly, to be endorsed by many adults and authority figures as refreshing candor, “telling it like it is.” Previous studies have found that many children feel that telling parents or other family members “will only make it worse.” It is likely that such feelings are more prevalent now. In this way, cyberbullying joins the list of harmful secrets that burden childhood .
Taking cyber-bullying seriously, without infringing on free speech, is more important than ever. This is a toxin infecting the trust and support that all children should feel. It corrodes public discourse, transforms communications into arm-wrestling matches of strong against weak, and legitimizes intimidation. Those are not the lessons that children should be learning online.

Ackers, M. J. (2012). Cyber bullying through the eyes of children and young people. Educational Psychology in Practice 28, 141-157.
Bowes, L., et al. (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioral resilience to bullying: Evidence of an environmental effect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51, 809-817.
DePaolis, K., & Williford, A. (2014). The nature and prevalence of cybervictimization among elementary school children. Child & Youth Care Forum 44, 377-386

About the Author

As independent therapeutic and educational consultants, we work with families from around the country to find appropriate emotional or academic environments and offer both placement and case management services. If you are interested in learning more about what the series we offer, or you know of a family struggling, please reach out to us. We look forward to hearing from you, and thank you for taking the time to read our newsletter.