Adolescent peer sexual harassment associated with sadness, substance use

Sad girl with rain cloud, broken heart, and low battery.

Published September 2, 2022

Cigarette and alcohol use higher on days youth are victimized, according to UB researchers


Jennifer Livingston, PhD, associate professor in the School of Nursing, was recently published in the Journal of Adolescence for her research team’s examination of the relationship between sexual harassment, substance use and negative affect – like anger and sadness – on 13- to 16-year-olds. Substances considered include cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana.

Their work is an extension of studies examining same-day impact of bullying on young people, who are more likely to report higher levels of anger/sadness and cigarette use on days they are bullied.

Through an examination of adolescents’ daily reports over the course of eight weeks, Livingston’s team found that participants were “more likely to report substance use on days when sexual harassment victimization occurred.” Specifically, they found a same-day association between sexual harassment and cigarette and alcohol use. They also note prior day sexual harassment is a “significant predictor” of e-cigarette use, which could mean the effects of sexual harassment carry on beyond the day it occurred.

In terms of affect, Livingston’s team found that participants reported higher than typical anger/sadness on days they were sexually harassed versus days they were not.

This study and others, according to the authors, show that “sexual harassment is distressing to adolescents … and should not be dismissed as harmless or normative.” They suggest teaching coping strategies for managing emotional distress and regulation may help reduce substance use.

The authors recommend additional research to establish timing and conditions/specific contexts under which sexual harassment leads to negative affect and substance use.

Additional authors include Weijun Wang, UB SON and UB Research Institute on Addictions; Maria Testa, UB Department of Psychology and Research Institute on Addictions; Jaye L. Derrick, University of Houston; Amanda B. Nickerson, UB Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention; Kathleen E. Miller, D’Youville College; Jennifer L.  Haas, UB School of Public Health and Health Professions; and Dorothy Espelage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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