Teen Jobs and Drug Use

About one in six adolescents in the U.S. hold a job while going to school. This is the latest of several major research studies to show that the risks from teenage jobs can outweigh the benefits.

Using data from the U.S. government’s National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse, the authors compared a national sample of more than 7,500 students ages 12-17 who did not have jobs with more than 1,000 who worked part-time and 96 who worked full-time.

Youths who worked either part-time or full-time were more likely to smoke, drink or use illegal drugs than those who did not have jobs. For example, 24 percent of students who worked full time had binged on five or more alcoholic drinks at one time in the last month, compared with 12 percent who worked part time and 6 percent who were not employed. Results were similar for heavy drinking, defined as having five or more drinks on each of at least five occasions in the last month – a criterion met by 13 percent of youths working full time, 5 percent of part timers and 2 percent of those who didn’t work. The same was true for heavy cigarette use (at least a pack a day), which was reported by 10 percent of full timers, 3 percent of part timers and 1 percent of nonworkers.

The differences were not as great, however, for heavy drug use, which was reported by 5 percent of full time workers, and by 2 percent of part timers and nonworkers. Heavy drug use was defined as daily marijuana use; heroin use at least once; or weekly use of cocaine, inhalants, pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers, stimulants, or hallucinogens.

Is there something about work that causes drug use? Not exactly. School dropouts who were unemployed were the most likely to report heavy drug use (8 percent) and were similar to full time workers in rates of binge drinking (21 percent), heavy drinking (12 percent) and heavy smoking (7 percent).

Since older students are more likely to drink, smoke and use drugs, and more likely to have jobs, that could explain the relationship between jobs and drugs. Fortunately, the researchers conducted statistical analyses taking age, race, ethnicity, mental health problems and other factors into account. They found that even when those traits were statistically controlled, youths who worked were more likely to report recent and heavy substance use.

The researchers also found differences for boys and girls.

Boys who work full time are more likely to smoke, smoke heavily, binge on alcohol, drink heavily and use marijuana compared to those who don’t work. Boys who work part time are more likely to smoke marijuana but did not differ from nonworking boys in other respects. Unemployed boys who had dropped out of school were more likely to smoke heavily and use illegal drugs other than marijuana, compared to the other boys.

Females who worked full time or part-time were more likely to use alcohol than were other girls, whereas girls who worked part-time were more likely than nonemployed students to smoke, binge drink, drink heavily or use drugs other than marijuana. Unemployed girls who were school dropouts were more likely than the female students to use alcohol, binge drink, or drink heavily.

The reasons for the link between work and substance use is not known, but likely explanations include exposure to co-workers with those habits, the availability of drugs and alcohol through co-workers, and the availability of earnings to buy drugs and alcohol (without parents knowing about it). In addition, research shows that students who work tend to have poorer grades and be less committed to doing well in school or going to college, so they might not be as motivated to avoid behaviors that could interfere with those goals.

The implications for parents or adults who counsel, mentor or supervise teens is clear: Be aware of the risks that jobs can present for teens, and find ways to minimize those risks. If kids need the money or other benefits that work provides, try to help them find jobs that won’t expose them to negative influences. Encourage some controls on the earnings so that they won’t be spent on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

  1. The Relationship Between Employment and Substance Abuse Among Students Aged 12 to 17. Li-Tsy Wu, ScD, William Schlednger, PhD, and Deborah Galvin, PhD. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol 32, No1, January 2003, pp. 5-15.