Catching Up to the Boys, in the Good and the Bad
Teen Girls' Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Use on the Rise

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

She lost count of the vodka shots. It was New Year's Eve 2005, and for this high school freshman, it was time to party. She figured she'd be able to sleep it off -- she'd done it before. But by the time she got home the next day, her head was still pounding, her mouth was dry, and she couldn't focus. This time, the symptoms were obvious even to her parents.

After that night, she realized the weekend buzzes had gone from being a maybe to a must.

"Before, it was a novelty," the Silver Spring teen said. "It went from, 'Well, maybe . . .' to 'Oh, I know I'm going to drink this weekend.' "

A generation of parents and educators have pushed to ensure that girls have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, with notable results. In 2007, for example, it was girls who dominated the national math and science competition sponsored by Siemens. But a growing number of reports show that the message of equality might have a downside.

Teenage girls now equal or outpace teenage boys in alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking, national surveys show. The number of girls entering the juvenile justice system has risen steadily over the past few years. A 2006 study that examined accident rates among young drivers noted that although boys get into more car accidents, girls are slowly beginning to close the gap.

A 17-year-old Charles County girl was charged last month with reckless and negligent driving in a Nov. 28 accident in which a 15-year-old girl was killed. In June, a 20-year-old student at George Mason University traveling west on the inner loop of the Capital Beltway near the Springfield interchange drove her convertible into a tractor-trailer. She and three friends were killed. Then, in September, a 17-year-old Fairfax County girl was charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter after she drove her sport-utility vehicle head-on into a van, killing a 59-year-old woman.

"When you take off the shackles, you release all kind of energy -- negative and positive," said James Garbarino, the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. "By letting girls loose to experience America more fully, it's not surprising that they would absorb some of its toxic environment."

The teenager with the vodka hangover, who is now 16, was one of several Washington region teenage girls who agreed to talk about their lives and what compels them to drink, smoke or indulge in behaviors that might make their parents blanch. They asked that their names not be used so they could speak frankly.

In the same breath, the young women talked about feeling "empowered" because they can choose from myriad colleges and careers and about how that "freedom" extends to partying at clubs, drinking and smoking. Experts worry that those feelings, coupled with a teen's natural sense of invincibility, can be a potent and dangerous combination. Indeed, the teenage girls interviewed by The Washington Post seemed almost blase about the potential consequences.

"People tell me all the time [smoking] isn't good for me," said an 18-year-old from Bethesda, rolling her eyes. But in her mind, that's 30 years down the line. Same with the drinking (she prefers champagne) and the occasional recreational drug.

"In the past, people have had this angelic picture, but girls are just as bad as boys are," she said. "We do what we want to do, when we want to do it."

"I live for now," she said, a grin spreading across her face. "It's great to be a girl."

Experts say there is no single explanation for why more teenage girls are deciding to experiment with drugs or why some are getting into fights. However, they do note that society's expectations about girlhood have changed dramatically over the years. Annette Funicello's wholesome beach blanket antics have given way to Britney Spears's latest meltdown.

"The why of what's happening is in part a direct response to the advances that we're making as a society around gender equity," said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of public health at Harvard University. If society offers girls and boys the same opportunities, that means they're exposed to the good as well as the bad, she said.

"We really have to ask the questions, 'Why wouldn't you expect girls to behave [like boys]?' Girls and women are closing all the other gaps," Prothrow-Stith said.

Experts who work with teenage girls, particularly those in the Washington region, say more options can also equal more stress. A 2005 poll, conducted by The Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard found that more than four in 10 local high school girls said they "frequently" experienced stress in their daily lives, compared with fewer than three in 10 nationally.

"Our lives are so crazy, and kids are looking for something when they feel" stressed, said Beverly Parker-Lewis, a clinical psychologist with the Fairfax County public schools. "Sometimes, the result is negative behavior."

Teenagers say pressure is a factor. The 18-year-old remembered being so overwhelmed by the pressure to be a perfect student that, at one point, she couldn't get out of bed. The 16-year-old talked about how both academic and peer pressure prompted her to take up drinking as an outlet for her stress.

Girls "work so hard to prove themselves all the time," said Christine Whitaker, a therapist with Metropolitan Counseling Associates in Bethesda. "Then, when the weekend comes, they blow it all out."

And teenagers are surrounded by a mix of messages. On one hand, their parents and teachers tell them not to drink, smoke or do drugs, but on the other hand, music and such television shows as "Gossip Girl" and "The Hills" showcase teens indulging in just such behavior.

According to a 2006 survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were at equal or higher risk of substance abuse compared with boys. That same year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy found that the number of girls who smoke or abuse prescription drugs had surpassed that of boys. More troubling: The increase in drug usage among girls comes at a time when overall numbers for teenage drug abuse are on the decline.

Sue Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at CASA, said these behaviors can be especially dangerous for girls because of the different ways in which their bodies process substances. One drink for a woman is the equivalent of two for a man. CASA researchers found that girls and women "are also likely to become addicted to alcohol, nicotine, illegal and prescription drugs and develop substance-abuse related diseases at lower levels of use and in shorter periods of time."

The 16-year-old said her vodka hangover made her realize that drinking was starting to dominate her life. It was affecting her grades and friendships. Slowly, with the help of a counselor, she began to set limits for herself. She stopped hanging around with friends who liked to drink and found a new crowd. She still drinks on weekends, but it has ceased to be a "must" in her life, she said.

A recent study, conducted by emergency medicine physicians at the Center for Trauma and Injury Prevention Research at the University of California at Irvine medical school, examined accident rates of young drivers between 2000 and 2004 and found that although boys have more accidents, young female drivers appear to be closing the gap.

"It used to be that girls had far fewer accidents and speeding tickets and were considered to be better risks," said Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. "But over the last 15 to 20 years, girls have been catching up with boys."

Those who work with adolescents say that as people become more aware of the trends affecting girls, the key will be to find ways to address them.

Because teenage boys have been considered the traditional culprits, "young women are falling between the cracks," said Virginia Tsai, a physician with the UC-Irvine study.

Rebecca Kullback, a colleague of Whitaker's who is co-founder of Metropolitan Counseling Associates in Bethesda, said parents need to rethink the messages they're sending their daughters and teach them how to better manage their stresses. Other experts say that those who work with adolescents need to better tailor intervention programs to be effective for girls as well as boys.

But the real challenge of reaching the teen girl demographic might be persuading girls that their behavior could have consequences -- if not now, somewhere down the line.

When asked why they drink, the 18-year-old and a friend paused for a moment before summing up the appeal in one succinct statement:

"Life," the 18-year-old declared, as her friend chimed in, "is better with a buzz."

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