Our Kids on Steroids
Q: Teen steroid abuse keeps rising every year. As parents, how should we approach this serious problem?
A: I’m a parent too and completely agree that teen steroid abuse is a serious problem. But hysterical media reports which claim that teen steroid use is rising or has reached epidemic proportions are unfounded. In the newInterventions for Addiction (Elsevier, 2013), in which I coauthored the chapter on performance-enhancing drug use by adolescents and college students, we carefully analyzed the prevalence of teen steroid use. Reliable research like the Monitoring the Future study which annually surveys about 50,000 students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades shows that steroid use has been quite steadily declining among students for over a decade and is now less than half of what it was. Dr. Harrison Pope, the Harvard psychiatrist famous for researching mental disturbances among steroid users, recently analyzed the data from nine different studies. Despite “media attention to steroid use by teenagers,” he writes in an email, “the studies showed that early-teenage steroid use is actually rare. Among more than 3,000 steroid users, only about 1% reported that they started steroids before they turned 17, and only 7% had started before they turned 18.” Predictably, the mainstream media never let the facts get in the way of a scare story.
Of course, even a small incidence of teen steroid abuse is concerning (note that teens may be motivated to use steroids for body image reasons, not just for sports). But how should we deal with it? What do we say to kids about steroids? Well, I see three options: 1) avoid the discussion; 2) lie and scare the bejesus out of them; or 3) honestly educate them.
Avoiding the discussion presupposes that teens are unaware of steroids, so that silence will maintain them in safe and blissful ignorance. However, kids watch the news and talk to their friends. They’ll hear plenty about it. They just won’t hear it from you.
Bogus scare tactics have been a common approach. They don’t work. Teens don’t believe everything adults tell them. When they ask around and learn that some of the steroid risk “information” they’ve been given is exaggerated or distorted, they’ll have a reason to discount all the health warnings – even the valid ones. A dangerous scenario.
Honest education is the best policy. Just because steroid risks have been distorted doesn’t mean they don’t exist, especially for developing adolescents. Steroids are powerful hormones and can impact the whole body, including the brain, liver, prostate, skin, scalp and heart – most dramatically at high doses. They are intended to be used under a physician’s guidance and supervision, and they are not for kids. Oral steroids can harm the liver. Steroids don’t typically cause uncontrollable “roid rage,” but they can impact your mood, and a tiny percentage of users exhibit serious behavioral problems at very high dosages. While the roots of depression are far too complex to say that steroids “cause” depression (some research shows the opposite),stopping steroids cold turkey and without medical intervention can wreak havoc on your body and mind and could have been one of many factors contributing to three highly publicized cases of teen suicide. And although there’s not one shred of proof to support former NFL player Lyle Alzado’s dubious claim that steroids caused his brain cancer, the long-term effects of steroid use haven’t been subjected to controlled studies and aren’t fully known.
If we want to further reduce steroid use among teens, we need to level with them. At the school level, research confirms the success of programs like ATLAS, which provides positive alternatives to steroid use including cutting-edge training and diet information. As for parents, before you talk to your teen about steroids, educate yourself. Then be honest about the side effects and stress that steroids aren’t a magic bullet – they demand the same dedicated nutrition and training that would build muscle even without them. Emphasize that once you take steroids, natural testosterone production stops. Given that natural testosterone levels of teenage boys are so high that they can jump to 2,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood (about two to four times a typical adult’s!), why take steroids as a teen and turn off the most powerful natural anabolic spigot you’ll ever have?! Teens: forget about steroids and harness that natural power!