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EXPERT OPINION: Sorting out steroids, with Tonya Dodge

Can kids with athletic ambitions be steered away from taking steroids? We think so, especially if we start when kids are younger. I’m finishing up a study, funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency, to help me plan a parent-based interven- tion program. So far, the results suggest that parents can be effective advisors and information sources. I surveyed 250 ado- lescent athletes from three upstate New York high schools, asking how much they talk with their parents about anabolic steroids, what they think are the best sources for facts and advice about them, and other questions. The results suggest that when parents, especially fathers (we don’t know why), talk with their children— say, about ways of refusing an offer of steroids from a peer, or about how using steroids may be seen as cheating—those kids are less likely to take steroids. Even when the discussion acknowledges the power and appeal of steroids as perform- ance enhancers, that does not increase the likelihood that the kids will use steroids.

What kinds of information do kids need to hear about steroids? Typically, kids are told about long-term risks like bone and growth problems, repro- ductive abnormalities, and dementia. And those are all real. But I’m collaborating with two colleagues in England and one in Aus- tralia to compare the effectiveness of scary stories alone vs. scary stories within a comprehensive, objective information pro- gram. The risk factors and culture around steroids are fairly similar across western- ized countries—the laws and rules are similar, and the users are mostly male athletes in sports of speed and strength—so we’re investi- gating whether a similar infor-

mation and intervention strategy might work across the board. Another angle is ethics. Many kids see

steroid use as a form of cheating, and they may draw an ethical line between nutritional aids and anabolic steroids.

Should nutritional supplements be promoted as steroid alternatives? We’re looking into that. Certainly these legal supplements—like protein powders and creatine or other amino acid formu- las—seem safer, as long as they’re manu- factured properly. Under a National Insti- tutes of Health grant, we asked 4,000 freshman males from two northeastern universities to fill out an online survey about their attitudes and expectations sur- rounding steroids and supplements. One correlation we found was that students who try nutritional sup- plements tend to believe that steroids would be even better. Perhaps their experience of moderately enhanced strength or stamina fuels their desire for more dramatic performance im- provements. In any case, it’s worrisome.

What’s one thing we can do to re- duce youngsters’ abuse of steroids? We found that parents

just don’t talk about this very much; they may talk about safe sex, or drugs and alco- hol, but hardly at all about steroids. Given our early evidence about the effectiveness of parental intervention, I’d recommend that all parents—especially if they have kids active in sports—make sure to talk about the appeals and risks and alterna- tives of steroids, to help kids make healthy choices early on. There’s lots of good in- formation at (click on “facts” in the top-left corner) and at www.drugabuse .gov (click on “steroids” in the right-hand column).

Tonya Dodge, a veteran long-distance run- ner, teaches courses in social psychology, sports psychology, and adolescent health.



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