Childrens decisions and thoughts about smoking and drinking

Childrens decisions and thoughts about smoking and drinking

By Margaret Rogers

Children between the ages of 10 to 12 years of age have both negative and positive attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol and the use of cigarettes.  It is important that during this period in a child’s development the importance of their negative thoughts towards both these substances is impressed.

Recent research which was co-led by professors Roisin O’Connor of Concordia University and Craig Colder of State University o New York at Buffalo is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Their study found that, at about the age of 10-12, children are ambivalent towards the use of alcohol and cigarettes.  The research suggests that youngster have both negative and positive thoughts about these substances and have not yet decided which is the strongest.  It is during these formative years that outside influences can sway whether their opinions on substance use and affect whether they start to drink and/or smoke cigarettes.   Influences which could lead to a child being lead to use these substances can be found both in the way in which the media portrays substance use and peer pressure.

O’Connor says ‘Initiation and escalation of alcohol and cigarette use occurring during late childhood and adolescence makes this an important developmental period to examine precursors of substance use. We conducted this study to have a better understanding of what puts this group at risk for initiating substance use so we can be more proactive with prevention.’

It was found that at an impulsive, automatic level, at this stage of their lives, 10-12 year-olds thought that these substances were bad.  However, they found it easy to overcome this opinion and think that they were good when asked to place them alongside positive words. 

‘This suggests that this age group may be somewhat ambivalent about drinking and smoking.  We need to be concerned when kids are ambivalent because this is when they may be more easily swayed by social influences,’ explained O’Connor.  O’Connor also states that drinking and smoking among this age group is influenced by impulsive (acting without thought) and controlled (pros and cons considered) decisional processes.

Both of these processes were examined in the study with the researchers looking at how best to understand the risks of initiating the use of these substances.

The study used a computer-based test to examine the responses of nearly 400 participants aged between 10 and 12 years of age.  This age group is known as ‘tweens’.   The participants were asked in one test, to put images of cigarettes and alcohol next to positive words. In another test they were asked to place the pictures with negative words.

O’Connor said ‘From this we saw how well the participants were able to categorise the pictures in the way that was asked.  Using a mathematical formula of probabilities we were able to identify how often responses were answered with impulsive and thoughtful processes as they related to drinking and smoking.’

The study is yet to continue with its next stage.  This is to look at children over the long period.  The feeling is that as ‘tweens’ start to drink and/or smoke, there is a weakening of their negative biases and that their desire will begin to outweigh any negative bias.

‘O’Connor concluded ‘We would like to track kids before they use substances and follow them out into their first few years of use and see how these processes play out.  Ultimately, we would like to help kids with that thoughtful piece.  There is such a big focus now on telling kids substances are bad, but from our study we are seeing that they already know they are bad, therefore, that is not the problem.  The problem is the likelihood of external pressures that are pushing them past their ambivalence so that they use.  In a school curriculum format I see helping kids deal with their ambivalence in the moment when faced with the choice of use or not use substances.’

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