Research could reveal the linkage between early puberty and adolescent substance abuse


Debby Garcia

Jessica Duncan Cance of the Department of Kinesiology is currently studying the relationship between substance use and pubertal development.

Cinnamon Cornell

Research revealed that adolescents who go through puberty at an earlier age may be more likely to experiment with substance abuse because of their desire to resemble older peers. 

Jessica Duncan Cance, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health education, was the lead author on the study and was responsible for developing the research questions, analyzing the data and writing up the findings. The study, “Perceived Pubertal Timing and Recent Substance Use Among Adolescents: A Longitudinal Perspective,” found that early advancement of puberty is correlated with greater experimentation with cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. 

Cance conducted her research with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Our findings suggest that adolescents who perceive themselves as developing earlier than their peers have a heightened risk for engaging in substance use, thus adding to the ever-growing profile of factors that influence risky behavior during this stage,” said Anna Talley, graduate research assistant for the project.

According to Cance, the study confirms what other research has found, but also investigates a new aspect of the issue.

“Our study [is] unique because we were able to show that this risk persisted throughout adolescence, even after their same-aged peers caught up in their pubertal development,” Cance said.

The study suggests that preventing substance use among early developers in late elementary school or early middle school could make a long-term difference. 

Talley said while this study explores patterns of substance abuse across adolescence, the results may be interesting to students whose personal lives or future careers necessitate an understanding of the complexities of adolescent development and behavior.

“It is hoped that individuals who take concern with the well-being of adolescents — whether it’s that of a younger sibling or an entire class of middle school students — will consider the role of pubertal timing as they strive to steer youth away from adopting unhealthy behaviors,” Talley said.