Child hair samples reveal underage drug use may be far more common than thought

SAN DIEGO — Hair samples are revealing that underage drug use in the United States may be worse than anyone suspects. A new study finds that testing hair follicles uncovers previously undocumented cases of substance abuse among young children and adolescents. In fact, researchers say almost twice the number of children tested positive for drug use compared to the number who verbally admitted to trying drugs.

“It’s vital that we understand the factors that lead to drug use in teenagers, so that we can design targeted health initiatives to prevent children from being exposed to drugs at a young age,” says lead study author Natasha Wade, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California-San Diego, in a media release.

Adolescent drug abuse is an alarming public health concern that should grab the attention of parents and non-parents alike. Five percent of U.S. 8th graders (ages 13–14) disclosed that they used cannabis in the last year, according to the study’s survey. This number increased even more for alcohol and nicotine use, with 26 and 23 percent admitting to using these respective substances. These figures are concerning for obvious reasons, such as the associations with worse academic performance, mental health, and brain function.

However, what if there’s more to it all than we could ever see coming?

Marijuana use is most common among children

To investigate, Dr. Wade and her team asked 1,390 children whether they used drugs in the last year. They then took hair samples to collect more solid evidence beyond just relying on self-reports.

“A long-standing issue in substance use research, particularly that relating to children and adolescents, is a reliance on self-reporting despite the known limitations to the methodology. When asked, children may mis-report (unintentionally or intentionally) and say they take drugs when they don’t, or conversely deny taking drugs when they actually do,” Dr Wade adds.

“But rather than scrapping self-reporting of drug use altogether, a more accurate picture of teenage substance use can be gained by measuring both. Self-reporting has its own strengths, for instance young people may be more willing to disclose substance use at a low level, but are less likely to when frequent drug-taking patterns emerge. Conversely, hair assays are not sensitive enough to detect only one standard drink of alcohol or smoking one cannabis joint. Instead, the method is better at detecting frequent and moderate to heavy drug use. Combining both methodologies is therefore vital to accurately determine the levels of substance use in the teenage population.”

In their analysis, the team found that of the children asked, 10 percent said they used drugs. Hair analyses also showed that 10 percent of them tested positive for at least one drug. More specifically, 6.1 percent tested positive for cannabis, 1.9 percent for alcohol, 1.9 percent for amphetamines, and 1.7 percent for cocaine.

Few cases matched what children reported

However, there were some inconsistencies between the type of drugs adolescents say they were using and the positive hair samples. Of the 136 children that self-reported their substance use and 145 whose hair samples were positive for any drug, only 23 cases matched. Hair analysis also revealed nine percent more substance abuse cases than the reported figure, almost doubling the total number to 19 percent.

The team emphasizes the importance of noting the chance that some of the adolescents might not even know they used a substance at all. They could’ve forgotten or were unknowingly exposed to it by a parent, friend, or peer from school. Regardless, researchers say the results speak to a larger problem that needs addressing in schools, homes, and by officials to keep children and adolescents safe.

The findings appear The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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