Researcher Studies Effectiveness of Substance Use Programs 

Black teen engaging with parent and chatting on the couch in a warm, home setting.

by Kathy Quirk

Preventing substance abuse among teens is a continuing concern. 

UWM researcher, Ai Bo, assistant professor of social work, has focused her research on how programs can be most effective, especially among Black, Hispanic and Native American adolescents. 

The meta-analysis of substance use prevention programs that she and a team of colleagues developed has been selected by the HEDCO Institute for Evidence-based Educational Practice at the University of Oregon to be featured in their latest report. 

HEDCO made a booklet based on a paper she published last year in Clinical Psychology Review on the topic. Her findings showed that culturally sensitive prevention programs are effective in preventing or reducing substance abuse among Black, Hispanic/Latinx and Native American adolescents. 

Bo’s research has focused on the multiple factors that influence teens’ substance use and effective ways to help adolescents avoid those issues. There are various determinants at the individual, family, and sociocultural levels that impact substance use among adolescents, she said. Culturally sensitive prevention programs generally target a combination of these factors to prevent adolescent substance use.  

The most immediate determinants of adolescent substance use are their cognitions related to substance use, including their perceived benefits of substance use and their beliefs that substance use is common among their peers. Mental health problems may also lead to substance use.  

Portrait of Ai Bo (asian woman), social work assistant professor
Ai Bo is assistant professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee.

Parental influence is critical, she added. While it is commonly believed that peer influence is the most important factor during adolescence, research indicates that parents can maintain a steady influence on adolescents and emerging adults. A positive parent-child relationship, consistent parental monitoring, support, and parents’ disapproving attitudes, along with clear rules of teen substance use, can act as protective factors against adolescent substance use. Conversely, parent substance use, family conflict, and a lack of these protective parenting mechanisms are associated with an elevated risk of adolescent substance use. 

Among adolescents of color, sociocultural factors such as racial and ethnic discrimination is a robust risk factor for substance use; whereas cultural socialization practices are associated with enhanced self-identity and protect adolescents of color from risky behaviors including substance use.  

Bo became interested in the topic through internships and practicums at elementary, middle and high schools and community youth centers while working on her undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work. 

She found that many substance use prevention programs were helpful, but not always as effective as they could be. 

“I used to work with youth in positive youth development programs,” she said. “While these programs are valuable, they may not always be specific enough to effectively address the elevated risks of substance use among adolescents.” 

“The traditional approach of prevention has been relying on a ‘kitchen sink’ approach,” she said, incorporating all the relevant risk and protective factors in a program without determining which ones are the most effective.  

Her research aims to make substance use prevention programs more effective and accessible. 

One key way of increasing the usefulness of these programs is to make them more “resource respectful.” This involves addressing the most influential factors based on empirical findings and ensuring that they do not become overly complex or resource-intensive for implementation, she said.  

Using culturally sensitive approaches, either developing culturally grounded programs or adapting existing effective programs, can increase efficacy and accessibility of prevention programs for adolescents of color. A program serving Latinx teens, for example, could use both Spanish and English-speaking facilitators and examples and activities rooted in the teens and their families’ culture, she said. Such program may also address acculturation gaps between immigrant parents and their children as well as immigration stressors the parents and children may be experiencing. Stressors like racial discrimination are prevalent among people of color but not addressed enough in prevention programs, Bo added. 

The good news for parents according to Bo:  

“Peer groups are a major influence, but research has found that for adolescents and even college students, parents play a key role in their substance use decisions and other health decision making. Good parenting strategies can buffer the negative influence of deviant peer affiliations and other risk factors of adolescent substance use.”