Adolescent drug use may be a universal problem, but its gendered aspects have been chronically under-explored. For more than a decade, rates of drug use among eighth-grade girls have equaled or outpaced those of their male counterparts. As girls mature, they also deal with fallout from drug use that their male peers don’t experience. Despite these trends, almost no interventions exist that address the gender-specific factors that make adolescent girls vulnerable to drug use.

Determined to fill that gap, researchers at the Columbia School of Social Work and Teachers College have shared the one-year outcomes of RealTeen—a first-of-its-kind gender specific drug use intervention in the form of an online program. These findings, reported in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence on July 28, 2017, support the implementation of gender-specific interventions for drug use among adolescent girls.

“Programs that address girls’ gender-specific risks—such as mood, stress, and body image—are sorely needed,” says Dr. Traci Schwinn, a research scientist at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and one of the study’s lead authors. “Without these programs, girls and boys continue to receive ‘one-size fits all’ curricula, even though the data suggest that girls would benefit from tailored programming.”

The study drew from a sample of approximately eight hundred early adolescent girls recruited through Facebook from around the country, who were randomly assigned to the intervention or control condition. After the pretest, girls in the intervention were directed to RealTeen and guided through sessions on goal setting, decision making, puberty, body image, coping, drug knowledge, and refusal skills.

“RealTeen is a stand-alone online intervention,” explains Dr. Schwinn. “Girls engage with skills-building curriculum at home, on a schedule of their choosing, thereby eliminating many of the institutional barriers to delivering gender-specific prevention programming.”

At the study’s one-year follow-up, girls who completed RealTeen reduced their drug use, had fewer drug-using peers, and improved their drug refusal skills, coping skills, and media literacy relative to girls who did not receive the prevention program. These results support the use of tailored, online, drug-abuse-prevention programming for early-adolescent girls as they transition from middle to high school—to mitigate future risk and steer them toward healthy outcomes.

Also contributing to the study were D’Elbert and Selma Keenan Professor of Social Work Steven Schinke; Jessica Hopkins of Catalyst Advisors; and Dr. Bryan Keller and Ph.D. candidate Xiang Liu, both of Teachers College. The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

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