Young alcohol and other drug (AOD) users are a heterogeneous population with diverse  interests and needs. The usage patterns of different groups can convey nuanced expressions of identity around ethnicity and particular forms of masculinity, femininity or sexual preference. Behaviours that are typical for young people undertaking an adolescent transition are often mistaken as drug  related. For example:

  • Being rude
  • Testing limits
  • Demanding more
  • Having mood swings
  • Having a sudden change in appetite or energy level
  • Changing peer group
  • Becoming a part of different sub-cultures (Mentha, 1999; p31).

Most young people will experiment with  alcohol and potentially other  drugs  at some  stage  (Bruun, 2008). Steinberg and Morris  (2001) distinguish between occasional experimentation and enduring patterns of dangerous or troublesome behaviour. “Many prevalence studies  indicate that rates of occasional, usually harmless, experimentation far exceed rates of enduring problems” (ibid p.90).  Even though experimentation can be reckless  at times, and binge-style patterns of AOD use can create great risk for adolescents, the majority will go on to develop an ongoing pattern of use that is relatively  harmless.

Developmental considerations
Each young person’s stage  of development and level of maturity have a bearing on the way they use alcohol and other  drugs. It is useful  to consider the extent  to which the AOD  use of young people is influenced by the characteristics of different adolescent sub-stages (even with  the limitations described earlier  in this section). Bruun and Palmer  (1998) offer  the following as a guide  for the general youth  population.

Early adolescence  (10 to 13/14)
At this stage young people’s AOD  use is often  experimental and determined by the substances available  in immediate proximity and easily available  (e.g. inhalants, alcohol, etc). All substance use (except inhalants) is illegal for young people in this age range. Using  is most  likely to begin  as a shared experience with  peers,  usually  of the same  gender. AOD  use can be a passport to membership of a group, providing status  and an opportunity to be seen as mature.

Mid-adolescence (14 to 17/18)
Due  to increased ability to procure drugs  through a broader social network, greater autonomy and mobility, young people at this stage  are most  commonly using for a particular effect. This means  that poly drug use is more  common. Increased confidence can also mean  more  risk taking  and further experimentation. Socially, AOD  use can be a means  to status  with some  peer  networks and/ or connecting with  potential sexual partners. For young women in this stage,  the connections will often  be with  older  adolescents. All AOD  use (except  inhalants) continues to be illegal.

Late adolescence (18 to 21)
Young people may continue to use substances in a similar  manner to the mid-adolescent group but in general, by this stage,  will have settled  on one or more  drugs of choice and a pattern of use. Naturally, this is subject to change. Drug  choice will often  be the result  of relationships developed in new  social circumstances such  as work  or study.

Young people who  use substances tend  to be strongly invested in the notion that for them, using  is an active choice over which they are able to maintain control (Guttierrez & Palacios,  2004). This is unsurprising given  that in contemporary society  young people are increasingly required to be active  managers of their lives and responsible for producing their own  sense of identity (Giddens, 1991; Melucci, 1996; Furlong & Cartmel, 1997; Kelly,  2006).

As such,  they commonly differentiate themselves from dependent drug  users and resist any possibility that their AOD  use is problematic (Muck, Zempolich, Titus, Fishman, Godley et al., 2001; Chassin, 2008). This has proven to be the case even when AOD  use is closely connected with  highly  problematic life experiences (Rosenthal, Mallett, Milburn & Rotheram-Borus, 2008). This could  go a long  way to explaining why young people are generally far less likely than  adults  to access treatment services.  As Room  (2005) explains, this can be “…humiliating evidence of failure  in self-management” (p151).

Duff  (2003) recognises that contemporary youth culture in Western societies has produced the well- adjusted, responsible adolescent “…who  uses drugs recreationally, very deliberately and very strategically” (p435). Such  young people manage to stay integrated with  a cultural mainstream (through education, employment, etc) and seldom come  to the attention of AOD  services.

For other  young people the demarcation between recreational and problematic use is less clear,  being determined by a range  of intrapersonal and socio- ecological factors that are often  beyond their control (Measham & Shiner, 2009). The ‘influences model’ (Spooner et al., 2001)  describes how  such  factors operate at multiple levels to shape  the AOD-using behaviour of individuals (see Figure  2.2).  Each level is associated with  several  factors.

  • Macro-environmental factors include legislation, law enforcement, availability,  and social ‘messages’ about  use, e.g. via the media.
  • Local environmental factors include traumatic experiences (e.g.  child abuse, war, refugee camp), socio-economic status,  support (e.g.  peers, community), peer  influences and labelling.
  • Family factors include ineffective parental family management techniques, negative communication patterns, and poor  family  relationships and parental role-modelling.
  • Individual factors include genetic predisposition, behaviour under control, personality (lack of social bonding, alienation, high  tolerance of deviance, resistance to authority), knowledge about  drugs, coping skills, commitment to education/academic problems, and early age of first use.


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