As long as sports and athletics have been around, athletes have searched for ways to boost their performance. If they could run just a bit faster, jump higher or hit harder, individual and team success would be closer to reality.
For some, eating well, practicing hard and hitting the weight room is enough to satisfy their competitive spirit, however, others turn to anabolic steroid use to enhance performance. Despite the risk of testing and the known dangers of taking these drugs, steroid use in high school students continues to be a concern that can lead to hazardous outcomes.
What Are Steroids?
Steroids are just one type of performance-enhancing drug (APED) used to build muscle and enhance performance. Anabolic-androgenic steroids, the most widely used APED, are human-made substances based on testosterone, the male sex hormone. Steroids have both anabolic and androgenic effects. Anabolic effects include promoting muscle growth while the androgenic effects increase stereotypically male physical characteristics.
The other types of APEDs include:
- Non-steroidal anabolics: Substances including insulin, insulin-like growth hormones and human growth hormones are all produced by the body. They are prescribed for medical uses and are sometimes abused for their performance enhancement effects.
- Thermogenics: Steroids build muscle mass but thermogenics work to decrease fat and encourage a lean physique that is appealing for long-distance runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes.
Not all steroid use is problematic or illegal. There are a variety of approved, medical steroid uses like:
- Treating delayed puberty
- Preventing muscle loss due to disease
- Regulating the levels of testosterone in men with conditions like low testosterone
- Increasing bone strength
- Improving mood
- Improving sexual performance
The history of steroids is relatively brief. Synthetic testosterone was first engineered in 1935. Early on, research on steroids centered on treating depression.
Less than 20 years later, steroids in sports became common among Olympic athletes. By the 1980s, steroid use became widespread among people from the general population who were using the drug to build muscle to improve their performance or to build muscle.
Teen Steroid Use Facts and Statistics
Though steroid use was first reserved for professional athletes with government connections, it is now common to see teens on steroids. According to teenage steroid use statistics, in 2017
- Roughly 0.6% of 8th graders used steroids in the last year
- About 0.8% of 10th graders used steroids in the previous year
- Around 1.1% of high school seniors have used steroids, which is significantly lower than the 2015 rate
In reality, most people who use steroids are amateur weightlifters between the ages of 20 and 40. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the rates of kids on steroids impacts adult use. About 22% of people who use steroids as adults began as teenagers.
It is important to note that tracking steroid abuse in teens is challenging because some will never admit to the practice and some surveys do not include questions about teen steroid use.
Boys vs. Girls
Comparing girls on steroids to boys on steroids reveals surprising information about their motivations. Males who use steroids are more likely to have:
- Low self-esteem
- Higher rates of mood problems like depression
- Higher numbers of suicide attempts
- Limited information about health and wellness
- Increased participation in sports based on weight and shape
- Higher rates of eating disorders
- Increased likelihood of substance use disorders
Males who use steroids may also have parents who are more concerned about weight and appearance. There could be a relationship between parental influence and steroid use.
Females who use steroids may be motivated by a similar desire to alter their appearance, physical performance or to live up to the expectations of others. About 2.2% of high school girls report using steroids.
Another commonality between male and female steroid use is a history of sexual abuse and rape. Men who experienced sexual abuse were significantly more likely to use steroids, and female bodybuilders who were victims of sexual abuse are twice as likely to use steroids compared to those who were not. So, for some, steroid use may be a way to respond to their feelings of vulnerability and defend themselves against the threat of abuse or violence.
Steroid Testing in High School
In 2002, the Supreme Court made it legal for high schools to test students for illegal drugs. The courts also permit the schools to carry out random steroid testing for high school athletes, and steroids are screened specifically along with other substances like marijuana, opioids and cocaine.
The steroid drug test serves two purposes. First, knowing that a drug test is a possibility will deter some from experimenting with the substances. By preventing substance use in the first place, the policy aims to avoid unwanted consequences of drug abuse.
Second, if a steroid test detects the substance, the school, the parents and the student can all take action to address the situation. With earlier intervention, there is an increased hope of minimizing the negative effects of steroids and other illicit drugs.
Consequences of Steroid Use in High School Athletes
The consequences of steroid use are always problematic, but the effects of steroids on teens is a more considerable concern. By introducing sex hormones in developing bodies, the risks of long-term or irreversible harm increases.
How does the abuse of anabolic steroids affect teens? Steroids create numerous health risks as well as academic and social consequences.
The list of possible health risks of steroids is shockingly long. Steroid use can negatively affect many systems across the body including:
- Cardiovascular system – leading to high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attacks and stroke
- Hormonal system in men – resulting in lower sperm counts, larger breasts, smaller testicles, baldness and testicular cancer
- Hormonal system in women – resulting in a deeper voice, smaller breasts, body hair growth and baldness
- Skin issues like acne, oily skin, jaundice and infections at the site of injection
Teens using steroids may not grow very tall as steroid use may stunt growth.
Steroids and mental health problems are frequently linked. Steroids can cause:
- Aggression – an increased tendency towards anger and violence, sometimes referred to as “roid rage.”
- Mania – boundless energy, a decreased need for sleep, extreme focus on accomplishing tasks
- Delusions – a group of thoughts and beliefs that seem real despite having no evidence and are often paranoid in nature
Teens who use steroids risk permanent damage to their developing brain. People who use steroids as teens tend to have higher levels of impulsivity and lower attention as adults. Steroid use in teens could also lead to long-term:
- Electrolyte imbalance
Some effects of steroids will dissipate to normal levels after use ends, but these will remain long after steroid use concludes.
Academic and Social Consequences
The physical and mental health risks of steroids are concerning, but the academic and social aspects can be quite harmful as well. For a student-athlete, the consequences of getting caught with steroids can be profound.
A person caught with steroids in their system will likely be suspended from their activity and disciplined by the school with possible expulsion. For someone who cares enough about a sport or a team to damage their body and brain, this result could be devastating since a large part of their identity may be connected to athletics.
Even if the authorities do not undercover the teen’s substance use, a teen using steroids will find it hard to pay attention and focus in class, which can result in lower academic performance.
The adverse social effects of steroids can come from the relationship damage caused by steroid use. The increased aggression, anger, impulsivity and delusional thinking may cause loved ones to worry about the individual or withdraw from the relationship completely. Some people who use steroids may become so invested in altering their appearance or physical abilities that they will put little effort into building or maintaining relationships.
Why High School Athletes Use Steroids
In general, high school students report wanting to look and perform better as reasons for using steroids. Athletes on steroids hope to find success in their athletic or personal goals through the use of these substances. Unfortunately, high school athletes using steroids sacrifice their long-term health and happiness for the lure of short-term success.
More specifically, high school students may use steroids to:
- Secure college scholarships
- Shift their body image
- Look more like professional athletes on TV
College Athletic Scholarships
For many high school athletes, receiving a college athletic scholarship for a top-tier school is an amazing accomplishment. Not only does it mean they have achieved a level of excellence in sports, but it also means the scholarship covers some or all of their college expenses.
Some high school students using performance-enhancing drugs hope to secure a scholarship, and steroid use in college athletes can continue in an effort to maintain scholarship status. Many worry that if their skills or abilities diminish, the scholarship can end, placing their educational future at risk.
Teen Body Image
Some teens use steroids to improve their body image. They may want to change their appearance to feel more comfortable in a bathing suit or to impress a romantic interest.
Others use steroids as a way to treat or minimize the effects of mental health disorders. One disorder called body dysmorphic disorder involves a person being extremely dissatisfied with their body. A specific form of this condition, called body dysmorphic disorder with muscle dysmorphia, is marked by the person thinking that their body is too small or is lacking muscle.
Males most commonly have this condition, but females may show symptoms of this disorder as well. Because of the distorted perceptions of their body, people with muscle dysmorphia will often use anabolic steroids to change their shape and add the mass they want, but they may never feel satisfied until mental health treatment addresses the roots of the concern.
Influence of Professional Athletes
To an impressionable teenager, professional athletes are larger-than-life celebrities who can lift tremendous weight, run amazingly fast and jump incredibly high. Not only are they successful on the field but, away from the game, they are held up in society as role models and celebrated for their wealth.
Generations of steroid use in professional sports have resulted in many famous steroid users. Even when a person is caught using steroids in professional sports, they seem to rebound from the scandal as quickly as the team lifts their suspension, and they go on to accomplish enviable feats.
For a gifted high school athlete who desperately wants to escape their lifestyle, the influence of professional athletes could result in steroid use in an attempt to mirror their heroes.
Signs Your Teen Is Using Steroids
Seeing the signs of steroid use in your teen is not easy. Without clear evidence, the process takes time and a thorough understanding of the drug and its effects.
To see the effects of steroid and teens, look for:
- Excessive muscle gain in a short amount of time without drastic changes to exercise or diet
- Physical changes like increased body hair, acne, changes in voice or breast size
- Paraphernalia or equipment related to steroids like vials of drugs, syringes or suspicious money transactions
- Changing groups of friends
If a parent is unsure about the physical signs of steroid use in their teen, they should look for changes to their child’s mental health. A short temper, increased anger and emerging aggressiveness are signs of steroid use. In more serious situations, teens using steroids will irrationally think people are spying on them or are out to get them.
The job of the parent becomes more complex as they must rule out the presence of other substance use and other mental health conditions. A person who uses drugs like cocaine or a person with bipolar disorder can show many of the same symptoms of someone using steroids.
Anyone unsure about the role of steroids in their child’s life should consult with trusted friends and family members to gather additional points of view. Trying to look for the signs of steroid use yourself can only bring uncertainty and frustration.
How to Help
If the evidence is piling up and your support system agrees with your assessment, it may be time to seek professional help for your teen’s steroid abuse. Steroid abuse is a significant concern — not one a parent should attempt to address alone.
People who abuse steroids at high rates may become physically dependent on them and experience unwanted withdrawal effects when use ends like:
- Poor appetite
- Lower sex drive
- Strong cravings for more steroids
Without professional teen drug rehab from a teen addiction provider, your child could continue using steroids or face the complications of steroid withdrawal alone. Getting a substance use evaluation from a trusted resource can help guide treatment.
Stating your concerns to your child is an uncomfortable conversation, but it is required. As long as you come from a place of love, support and care, there is a better chance for the interaction to be successful.
People with mild steroid use could receive treatment on an outpatient basis while someone with a history of severe use of multiple substances, co-occurring mental or medical conditions and limited social supports should consider a period of inpatient or residential treatment to manage symptoms and establish recovery.
If you are ready to take action to help your teen combat their steroid use, it might be time to call The Recovery Village. The Recovery Village in a professional treatment provider specializing in substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. The treatment experts have the experience and skills to guide your teen through each step of the recovery process.
American College Of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “Performance Enhancing Anabolic Steroid Abuse in Women.” April 2011. Accessed June 22, 2019.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Frequently Asked Questions About Drug Testing in Schools.” May 2017. Accessed June 22, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Steroids and Other Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs (APEDs).” February 2018. Accessed June 22, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs.” January 2016. Accessed June 21, 2019.