Are the kids all right?

PHHP scientists study behaviors associated with the new sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

By Jill Pease

Risk-taking behavior in young adults is an issue as old as street racing, house parties and double dares, but novel products and emerging practices have given young adults access to new thrills. Researchers in the College of Public Health and Health Professions are examining the health threats and developing interventions that may resonate with young people who have grown up in a digital age.

Dr. Tracey Barnett

Hookah hits the U.S.

Hookah smoking, long a part of Middle Eastern culture, has taken off in the United States with hundreds of hookah cafés popping up, mostly in college towns. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of some young adult populations are current hookah users, according to a University of Memphis study.

Because hookah smoke passes through a water bowl before being inhaled, some smokers consider hookah a harmless alternative to other forms of smoking, said Tracey Barnett, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of behavioral science and community health. In fact, experts believe that hookah smoking may be more harmful than cigarettes.

A study led by Barnett demonstrated that patrons leaving hookah cafés had carbon monoxide levels more than three times higher than patrons exiting traditional bars. The carbon monoxide can be attributed to the tobacco, the piece of burning charcoal used to warm the tobacco, and the nature of hookah use, in which users may smoke continuously for an hour or more, Barnett said.

“This study demonstrates that even one hookah smoking session is exposing participants to high levels of carbon monoxide,” Barnett said.

Dr. Colleen Le Prell

Not too young for hearing loss

Hearing loss used to be a problem associated with advancing age. Not anymore, according to a study in which one-quarter of college students who believed they had normal hearing did not have normal hearing sensitivity. It was an unexpected discovery made during the early stages of another study on hearing loss and personal music players.

“You would expect normal hearing in that population,” said lead researcher Colleen Le Prell, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of speech, language and hearing sciences. “The criteria for normal hearing we used for the study was, we thought, an extremely liberal criteria.”

The highest levels of high frequency hearing loss were in male students who reported using personal music players. More research is needed with a larger sample size to determine the role of personal music players and gender in noise-induced hearing loss, Le Prell said.

Twenty-five percent of the participants had 15 decibels or more of hearing loss at one or more test frequencies, an amount that is not severe enough to require a hearing aid, but could disrupt learning, Le Prell said. Of the participants who demonstrated hearing loss, 7 percent had 25 decibels or more of hearing loss, which is clinically diagnosed as mild hearing loss.

Dr. Robert Cook

Marijuana made in the lab

Synthetic marijuana — otherwise known as “K2” or “Spice” — was born in a Clemson University lab in the 1990s. When the formula became public it wasn’t long before manufacturers were spraying synthetic cannabinoids, which are not detectable in urine drug tests, on smokable herbs. Far from mellow, K2 use has been associated with anxiety, elevated heart rate and hallucinations.

Doctoral student Xingdi Hu and Robert Cook, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the department of epidemiology, along with Barnett, have conducted the first known study of the prevalence of K2 among college students. In a 2010 survey of 850 students, 8 percent reported having used K2. Users were more likely to be younger — freshman or sophomore level — and to have a history of smoking other substances.

In the past year several states have outlawed K2 and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has banned the five most popular recipes for synthetic marijuana, but by tweaking their formulas, some makers have been able to skirt the ban and sell “alternative” K2.

Cyber counselor

Alcohol and drug use have consistently been associated with risky sexual behaviors. There are proven counseling strategies to help people consider their risk, but very few practitioners in primary care and STD clinics are trained to do the counseling, Cook said.

“We wondered if the counseling was done using digital characters in a game-like atmosphere would people be more willing to participate in the counseling and would it be effective,” Cook said.

Working with UF’s Digital Worlds Institute, Cook and his team created a program akin to Second Life. Users generate an avatar to represent themselves and they interact with a digital counselor of their choosing. The team is seeking funding to move the program beyond the prototype stage, but pilot testing showed that accessibility shouldn’t be a problem for users.  More than 90 percent of the study participants use cell phone apps and have Internet access.

“Nearly everybody at the STD clinic had cell phones and were doing multiple features with their phones so there’s a lot of digital media going on in the youth of Alachua County,” Cook said.

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