Steroid Abuse: A Continuing Threat to Teens

By Hugh C. McBride

Barry Bonds and Marion Jones may be two of the most prominent public faces of the steroids-in-
sports scandal, but the abuse of these drugs is hardly limited to professional athletes and Olympic
medalists. In the United States, steroid use has filtered all the way down to the middle school
level. And though studies show declining usage among teens and adolescents, thousands of
young people continue to expose their bodies to the lasting damage that has been associated with
performance-enhancing drugs.

According to the 2007 edition of the University of Michigan’s annual “Monitoring the Future”
study, 1.5 percent of 8th graders report having used steroids at least once, as have 1.8 percent of
high school sophomores and 2.2 percent of high school seniors. These numbers are down from
the highs of three to four percent that were reported earlier in the decade.

WHAT ARE STEROIDS?

First developed in the 1930s, anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the human hormone
testosterone, which is responsible for the development of such traditionally masculine
characteristics as body hair and a deepened voice.

Though steroids can be used for legitimate medical purposes (such as stimulating bone growth
and countering the chronic wasting syndromes that are associated with AIDS and some types of
cancers), their ability to enhance muscle mass has made them a popular source of illegal physical
development.

The drugs can be taken either orally or via injection, and users usually “cycle” them – meaning
they take multiple doses over a number of weeks, stop for a predetermined length of time, then
begin again. The non-medical use of steroids is banned by virtually every major athletic
organization, and the drugs themselves are classified as controlled substances in many countries,
including the United States.

WHO USES STEROIDS – AND WHY?

The illegal use of steroids in sports has been traced back to 1954, when Soviet athletes
dominated that year’s World Weightlifting Championships. After the tournament, Dr. John
Ziegler, the U.S. team’s physician, learned from Soviet trainers that they had been injecting their
weightlifters with testosterone.

When Ziegler returned to the United States, he began experimenting with ways to mimic the
positive effects of mammoth doses of testosterone without any unseemly or debilitating side
effects. The results of his efforts were revealed four years later, when the drug he had
synthesized, methandrostenolone, began being sold for medical use under the brand name
Dianabol (and continued to be used surreptitiously by bodybuilders and weightlifters).

Over the years, steroid use expanded to other sports – most notably international track and field
and American professional football and baseball – and by the 1990s, media reports were warning
that the drug was gaining in popularity among high school athletes.

In response to reports of steroid use by adolescents, groups such as the National Institute on
Drug Abuse founded educational efforts like Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid
Steroids (ATLAS) and Athletes Targeting Healthy Exercise and Nutrition Alternatives
(ATHENA). Targeting young athletes and their coaches, ATLAS and ATHENA emphasize
healthy nutrition and drug-free training methods.

HOW DO STEROIDS AFFECT TEENAGERS?

According the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of anabolic steroids can be dramatic
and, in some cases, irreversible:

  • In adolescents, use of the drugs has been linked to heart, liver, and kidney damage.
    Steroid use among adolescents can also halt bone growth.
  • Males who abuse steroids may find themselves impotent, with rampant acne, shrunken
    testicles, and enlarged breasts.
  • The effects of steroids on females include the loss of scalp hair, the increased growth of
    body and facial hair, a reduction in breast size, a deepening of the voice, and irregular
    menstruation.
  • Individuals who inject steroids also risk exposing themselves to HIV and hepatitis.
  • Steroid use has also been associated with irritability, increased aggression, and
    unpredictable flashes of anger (sometimes referred to as “‘roid rage”) in both men and
    women.

As Congressional inquiries and public pressure have prompted major sports associations to adopt
and enforce more stringent anti-steroid rules in recent years, researchers have noted a decrease in
reported use of the drugs among younger athletes. Still, for developing athletes who are looking
for a performance edge – and even for non-athletes who simply desire to be bigger or stronger -
steroids offer a tempting shortcut and an “outlaw allure.”

As with a number of other challenges facing parents of teenagers, keeping steroids away from
one’s children is a matter of ongoing communication, continued education, and constant
vigilance.