Can love fight underage substance abuse?

Study shows young couples less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than single peers.
Study shows young couples less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than single peers.

When reminiscing about our first relationships, many of us tend to romanticize the past: stolen glances, first dates, first kisses and so on. Now, new research shows that young love may account for more than sweet memories; it may make young adults less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, which followed close to 1,000 people from grade school through young adulthood, people in their late teens and early 20s in committed relationships are almost 40 percent less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than their single or multi-dating peers.

Joanne Cox, MD, medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Young Parents Program, says the data aren’t surprising based on the typical behavior of kids fresh out of high school. “At that age, single people are more likely to be in groups and out partying, where as if they were in a relationship, they may spend more time with a partner,” she says. “Even when couples are in group scenarios where they might be using drugs or alcohol, they usually have another person looking out for them, which can decrease their risk-taking behaviors.”

The researchers took into account many other factors that have traditionally affected drug and alcohol abuse, like gender and employment status, but age seemed to play the biggest role when linking a young person’s drug and alcohol use with their dating history. Yet Cox is quick to point out that every teenager is different.

Joanne Cox, MD
Joanne Cox, MD

“Kids not yet dating may be more likely to be studying or focusing on sports and other goals for the future,” she says, noting that teens who date seriously in high school are more likely to go to parties or social events where underage drinking occurs than their single peers. “It’s something for parents to be aware of, but the underpinnings of these findings have a lot to do with the individual and where he or she is developmentally and socially.”

Just because Cox wasn’t surprised by the study’s results doesn’t mean she thinks the data is unimportant. She says parents should use any opportunity they can to talk with their kids about how their current behavior could affect their future; if this information resonates within a household, parents should use it strike up a conversation.