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Keywords:

  • Early Adolescence;
  • Alcohol Use;
  • Sensation Seeking;
  • Risk-Taking Propensity

Background:  Conceptual models implicating disinhibitory traits often are applied to understanding emergent alcohol use, but, little is known of how inter-individual changes in these constructs relate to increases in alcohol use in early adolescence. The current study utilized behavioral and self-report instruments to capture the disinhibitory-based constructs of sensation seeking and risk-taking propensity to examine if increases in these constructs over time related to increases in early adolescent alcohol use.

Methods:  Participants included a community sample of 257 early adolescents (aged 9 to 12) who completed a self-report measure of sensation seeking, a behavioral task assessing risk-taking propensity, and a self-report of past year alcohol use, at 3 annual assessment waves.

Results:  Both sensation seeking and risk-taking propensity demonstrated significant increases over time, with additional evidence that change in the behavioral measure of risk-taking propensity was not because of practice effects. Greater sensation seeking and greater risk-taking propensity demonstrated concurrent relationships with past year alcohol use at each assessment wave. Prospective analyses indicated that after accounting for initial levels of alcohol use, sensation seeking, and risk-taking propensity at the first assessment wave, larger increases in both constructs predicted greater odds of alcohol use at subsequent assessment waves.

Conclusions:  Results indicate the role of individual changes in disinhibitory traits in initial alcohol use in early adolescents. Specifically, findings suggest it is not simply initial levels of sensation seeking and risk-taking propensity that contribute to subsequent alcohol use but in particular increases in each of these constructs that predict greater odds of use. Future work should continue to assess the development of sensation seeking and risk-taking propensity in early adolescence and target these constructs in interventions as a potential means to reduce adolescent alcohol use.