When adolescents perceive religion as important in their lives, it may lower rates of cigarette smoking, heavy drinking and marijuana use, according to a study that tracked urban adolescents from middle school through high school. The researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that the perceived importance of religion was particularly important for teens who were facing a lot of life stressors. These findings are reported in the March issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Those adolescents who viewed religion as a meaningful part of their life and a way to cope with problems were half as likely to use drugs than adolescents who didn’t view religion as important. And this held most true while facing hardships, like having an unemployed parent or being sick themselves, according to Thomas Ashby Wills, Ph.D., Alison M. Yaeger, Ph.D., and James M. Sandy, Ph.D. This is known as a “buffering effect,” from the concept that something about religiosity serves to buffer the impact of adverse circumstances, said the researchers. The effect of religiosity was not limited by ethnicity, as comparable effects were for adolescents from all of the ethnic groups in the study (African-Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians).

From a sample of 1,182 adolescents in the metropolitan area who were surveyed on four different occasions from 7th grade through 10th grade, the authors tracked the adolescents’ drinking, cigarette smoking, marijuana use and perception of religion through early to late adolescence. This enabled the authors to take into account developmental changes that occur during these ages that might influence drug use. Importance of religion was determined by responses to simple questions such as, “To be able to rely on religious teachings when you have a problem”, or “To be able to turn to prayer when you’re facing a personal problem”. Participants rated each question on a scale from “Not at all important” to “Very important.”

“These buffering effects could be occurring,” said Dr. Wills, “because religiosity may influence a person’s attitudes and values, providing meaning and purpose in life. It could also help persons to view problems in a different way. Besides offering coping techniques, being involved with a religion can also create more healthy social networks than adolescents would have if they got involved with drugs to find social outlets.” This research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Article: “Buffering Effect of Religiosity for Adolescent Substance Use,” Thomas Ashby Wills, Ph.D., and James M. Sandy, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University; Alison M. Yaeger, Ph.D., Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University; Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 24-31.