New research suggests that attention skills can help prevent teen substance abuse when these skills are strong and well developed. Strong attention skills can be seen when teens can ignore distractions and focus on tasks at hand. Teens who develop strong skills are more likely to avoid teen substance abuse after initially experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Researchers from the University of Oregon focused on adolescents between the ages of 11 and 13 years old. There were more than 380 participants in this age group involved in the research study. Until now studies have relied on adult participants to remember when substance abuse started rather than examining the problem as it begins. The research shows that teens who have strong attention skills are far more likely to avoid teen substance abuse issues than those who lack these skills.
Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services professor Atika Khurana was the leader of the study on attention skills and teen substance abuse prevention. According to Khurana “Not all forms of early drug use are problematic. There could be some individuals who start early, experiment, and then stop. And there are some who could start early and go on into a progressive trajectory of continued drug use. We wanted to know what separates the two.” The professor continued by stating “Later assessments of the participants, who have now reached late adolescence, are being analyzed, but it appears that the compulsive progression, not just the experimentation, of drug use is likely to lead to disorder. Prefrontal regions of the brain can apply the brakes or exert top-down control over impulsive, or reward-seeking urges. By its nature, greater executive attention enables one to be less impulsive in one’s decisions and actions because you are focused and able to control impulses generated by events around you.
Khurana continued by saying “What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors. The findings suggest new approaches for early intervention since weaknesses in executive functioning often underlie self-control issues in children as young as three years old. A family environment strong in structured routines and cognitive stimulation could strengthen working memory skills.”