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Research Report: How Positive Attitudes Toward Past, Present, and Future Affect Drug Use in Adolescents

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

A study published this year in the Journal of Addiction Research and Theory analyzed a concept that’s simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. It’s the idea that the nature of our memories of the past, our feelings about the present, and our hopes for the future have an effect on whether we drink alcohol or smoke marijuana during adolescence.

The idea is familiar in that most of us understand that early trauma – called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – increases the chance that an individual will drink alcohol or smoke marijuana during adolescence. For a quick recap, ACEs include things like childhood abuse and neglect, parental addiction, witnessing domestic violence, witnessing neighborhood violence, and living in/through war or terrorism. That’s an incomplete list, but we think it conveys our meaning.

To learn more about ACEs, click here.

Back to our topic: most of us understand the idea that childhood trauma can have negative future consequences, such as cognitive impairment, academic problems, and early alcohol/drug use. That all makes sense to just about anyone.

What this new paper examines is how memories of childhood, present life satisfaction, and a positive outlook for the future affect rates of alcohol and drug use among adolescents. The new wrinkle to this research is what connects the nature of memories to alcohol or drug use. In this study, researchers hypothesize the following:

  1. The nature of memories and attitudes – positive or negative – have an impact on academic motivation and behavioral engagement in school.
  2. The quality of academic motivation and behavioral engagement in school – positive or negative – have an impact on alcohol and marijuana use.
  3. Positive memories and attitudes will correlate with increased academic motivation/behavioral engagement and decreased alcohol and marijuana use. Negative memories and attitudes will correlate with increased academic motivation/behavioral engagement and increased alcohol and marijuana use.

Let’s see if their research confirmed their hypotheses.

Time Attitudes, Behavior, and Adolescent Alcohol/Marijuana Use

This study follows up on research conducted in the U.K. on time attitudes and subsequent alcohol use among adolescents age 12-14. That study found adolescents with positive attitudes about their childhood were more likely to abstain from alcohol, less likely to drink more than peers of the same gender, less likely to report alcohol-related harms at follow-up, three years later.

This new study attempted to explain how those memories may have led to their drinking patterns. As mentioned above, the researchers proposed motivation connects time attitudes and alcohol or drug use.

Before we share the results of this new study, we’ll explain exactly what we – and the researchers – mean by the phrases time attitudes, academic motivation, and behavioral engagement. These are simple things we can all wrap our minds around.

Time Attitudes:

  • When asked about childhood, participants chose, on a scale of 1-5 (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree), how the following statement applied to them:
    • “I have very happy memories of my childhood.”
  • When asked about their present life, participants chose, on a scale of 1-5, how the following statement applied to them:
    • “I am happy with my current life.”
  • When asked about the future, participants chose, on a scale of 1-5, how the following statement applied to them:
    • “I look forward to my future.”

Researchers used this set of questions to determine overall attitudes toward past, present and future.

Academic Motivation:

  • When asked about school, participants chose, on a scale of 1-7 (1 = not at all true, 4 = somewhat true, 7 = very true), how these statements applied to them:
    • “I feel good when I’m in class.”
    • “When we work on something in class, I get involved.”
    • “Class is fun.”
    • “I enjoy learning new things in class.”

Researchers used this set of questions to determine how students felt, internally, about school, being in class, and schoolwork.

Behavioral Engagement:

  • When asked additional questions about school, participants chose, on a scale of 1-7 (1 = not at all true, 4 = somewhat true, 7 = very true), how these statements applied to them:
    • “I try hard to do well in school.”
    • “In class, I work as hard as I can.”
    • “I participate in class discussions.”
    • “I pay attention in class.”

Researchers used this set of questions to determine how students acted on their feelings about school, being in class, and schoolwork, i.e. how their internal attitudes about school affected their behavior during school.

Alcohol/Marijuana Use:

  • With regards to alcohol and marijuana use, participants answered, on a scale of 1-6 (1=0 days, 2=1 day, 3=2 days, 4=3–9 days, 5=10–19 days, 6=20–30 days), the question:
    • In the past thirty days, how many days did you:
      • Have one drink of alcohol
      • Have five or more drinks of alcohol within a couple hours
      • Use marijuana

Researchers used this set of questions to determine students’ level of alcohol and drug use.

We have one last piece of explaining to do before we get to the results. First, the title of the article, which is a mouthful: “Positive and Negative Time Attitudes, Intrinsic Motivation, Behavioral Engagement and Substance Use Among Urban Adolescents.” Second, the number of adolescents involved: 1,961 high school students from diverse backgrounds, all living in an urban area in the U.S.

Now for the results.

Memories, Motivation, Engagement, and Drug Use

Here’s what the researchers found:

Positive time attitudes were directly associated with:

  • Increased academic motivation
  • Increased behavioral engagement
  • Less alcohol use

Positive time attitudes were indirectly – but significantly and substantially – associated with:

  • Less alcohol use
  • Less marijuana use

Negative time attitudes were directly associated with:

  • Decreased academic motivation
  • Decreased behavioral engagement
  • Increased alcohol use

Negative time attitudes were indirectly – but significantly and substantially – associated with:

  • More alcohol use
  • More marijuana use

In other words, the researchers confirmed their hypotheses.

Takeaways: Creating Positive Early Experiences Has Lasting Benefits

The lessons we can learn here are important for parents, teachers, and school administrators to understand.

What this data indicates, in essence, is that positive experiences during childhood and youth – which lead to positive memories, i.e. time attitudes – can serve as protective factors for adolescent alcohol and drug use. These protective factors are mediated by the effect positive memories have on academic motivation and behavioral engagement, meaning, in the language of this study, that positive time attitudes can lead to increased motivation and engagement, which in turn can result in decreased alcohol and drug use.

For families, this implies parents should keep doing what they’re doing, which is the best they can to give their kids positive experiences and memories. For teachers, this implies that the more they can create a positive, supportive atmosphere – the more they can associate school with good memories – the more likely their students are to be motivated and engaged, two characteristics that increase their likelihood of academic success. And for school administrators, this means that if they, too, strive to create a positive and supportive school environment, their students can create positive time-attitudes toward school, thereby increasing motivation and engagement, which ultimately lead to two desirable outcomes: increased academic performance and decreased alcohol and marijuana use.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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