Macro-to-Micro Contextual Triggers of Early Adolescent Substance Exposure

What features of adolescents’ neighborhoods, families, and peer groups trigger early substance use? How can contextual triggers of early substance use be targeted to promote healthy development during the transition to middle school? Exposure to alcohol and drugs during early adolescence carries significant costs to adolescents’ future lives. As a result,parents, teachers, and those interested in promoting the well-being of young people struggle with the question of how to delay early substance exposure and reduce associated health-risk behaviors.

Research has informed our understanding of who is most likely to use substances at an early age. Unfortunately, very little attention has been paid to the settings in which young adolescents are first offered and exposed to substances. Odgers tested whether neighborhood settings or youth perceptions of family, peer, and neighborhood settings predicted early exposure to substances. Through the use of mobile phone technology and online tools, such as Google Street View, she hoped to produce new methods for assessing youth settings. Her studies also offered the opportunity to leverage genetically informative research designs to help isolate key environmental triggers of early exposure and test whether certain adolescents are more susceptible to both positive and negative life events and daily experiences.

Odgers analyzed data from a longitudinal study of 2,232 children born in England and Wales in 1994-1995 (the E-Risk Study) and collected new data on 150 young adolescents (ages 12-15) and their parents in southern California (the MiLife Study). The ERisk Study included community health and social status indicators, surveys of neighborhood residents, teacher surveys, and data from home visits when the children were ages 5, 7, 10 and 12. Data was also collected via observation of schools and neighborhoods.