According to a recent study, studying hair samples might reveal valuable information on adolescent drug use, since nearly twice as many children used drugs than the number who admitted to it in a US survey.
Experts recommend that future substance use research incorporate survey and hair analysis data.
A new study shows that hair analysis may be the answer to understanding adolescent drug use. In a US survey, almost twice the number of children admitted to using drugs is found.
When adding hair analysis results to those from the survey, a peer-reviewed journal American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse published a research looking at more than 1,300 children aged nine to 13.
Experts argue that hair analysis is far superior to surveying drug usage.
Natasha Wade, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, said the research is critical.
Adolescent substance abuse is a serious public health problem, with 5% of US eighth graders (ages 13-14) reporting cannabis use in the last year. The numbers for alcohol and nicotine use are even higher, with 26% of 8th graders admitting to drinking and 23% to smoking nicotine in the past year.
These figures are sufficient to make you wonder if substance abuse during childhood is linked to a slew of adverse life outcomes, including poor academic achievement, mental health problems, and altered brain function.
What if the figures were longer lasting than this?
A multidisciplinary expert group headed by Dr. Wade asked 1,390 children if they had taken any drugs in the last year. Hair samples were then taken as evidence that there had been a recent drug use.
10% of children said they had taken drugs. Alcohol, 1.9%, amphetamines, and 1.7% cocaine also tested positive for 10% of adolescents.
However, the children who self-reported drug use were different from those who tested positive with hair samples. In fact, of the 136 cases that self-reported any substance use, 145 that self-reported any substance use, matches were found for only 23 cases.
Moreover, hair drug testing revealed an additional 9% of substance use cases, almost double the number of identified substance users to 19%.
"Unfortunately, children may mis-report (unintentionally or intentionally) and say they take drugs when they don't," Dr. Wade adds.
“But measuring both can provide a more complete picture of teen substance use rather than eliminating self-reporting.
"Self-reporting has its drawbacks, for instance, young people may be more willing to admit drug use at an early age, but are less likely to do so when frequent drug craving patterns occur.
Hair assays aren't enough sensitive to detect just one standard alcoholic beverage or cigarette, but rather more effective at detecting frequent and moderate to severe drug use, according to a recent study.
"It's therefore crucial to combine both methods in order to accurately assess the prevalence of substance abuse among the young people."
The authors continue to point out that some, perhaps even many, of these youngsters are unaware that they ever used a substance, as it might have been given to them by a parent or peer, or they may have simply forgotten that they had used it.
Natasha E. Wade, Ryan M. Sullivan, William E. Pelham III, Marilyn A. Huestis, Krista M. Lisdahl, and Frank Haist, the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 22 February 2023. DOI: 10.1080/00952990.2023.2164931