Forty percent of high school seniors say steroids are easy to obtain. The other 60 percent may never have seriously considered the question, but if they tried a quick Google search, they'd probably agree.
Typing in a few simple keywords produces a wealth of information about steroids, including forums where users trade tips on the most reliable and discreet sources. Many sellers purchase “sponsored links” on Google, or advertisements that appear when a steroid-related search term is entered. One such site even offers prescriptions for sale.
Perhaps because of their easy availability, steroids increasingly are being used by high-schoolers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the number of boys who have used steroids at least once increased from 4.1 percent to 6.8 percent between 1991 and 2003. But girls' usage rocketed from 1.2 percent to 5.3 percent — more than a fourfold increase. That's a total of about 1 million high school steroid users.
But the real numbers are probably even higher, warns Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University and a leading expert on performance-enhancing drugs.
At a recent Senate hearing on steroid use by teens and young adults, several witnesses said steroid use is widespread among adolescents and college students. A Division I college football player, testifying anonymously from beneath a hood, with his voice altered to protect his identity, told the panel: “My current friend and roommate lived with a player that supplied seven-to-eight other players on the team with these steroids.”
He said the NCAA's random-testing program was weak because testing comes at roughly the same time each year.
Moreover, steroid users are getting younger. The percentage of college steroid users who began using in junior high or before jumped from 4.2 percent in 1989 to 15.4 percent in 2001, according to an NCAA survey of substance abuse among student athletes. In 1989, only 25 percent of NCAA steroid users had started taking the drugs before college; in 2001 the number had more than doubled to 57.2 percent. And steroid use among eighth-graders is higher now than it was among seniors in the mid-1990s.
One reason for the increase may be that fewer teens view steroid use as dangerous. The percentage of teens who said steroid use is a “great risk” decreased from 70.7 percent in 1992 to 55 percent in 2003.
Some observers blame growing teen complacency about steroid risks on slugger Mark McGwire's use of the steroid precursor androstenedione. They also point to steroids' increasing popularity among professional athletes — or at least the perception among the young that more pros are using steroids.
Not surprisingly, Internet sellers and steroid-user forums play down the risks of usage, capitalizing on uncertainty in the medical community on the exact risks associated with steroid use and the multiplicity of steroids available, some of which are reputed to be safer than others.
But the medical community unanimously opposes steroid use by adolescents. Steroids are definitively linked to permanent loss of height in adolescents due to the flood of artificial testosterone, which can cause bones to stop growing. Teenagers are also more likely to use extremely high doses or get steroids of questionable purity and production quality.
The motivations to use steroids by both girls and boys often reflect a striking reversal of gender stereotypes. Participation rates of girls in high school athletics have increased substantially in recent years, including a 160 percent increase in female wrestlers. The rising professionalism and profile of women's sports — like soccer and women's basketball — are probably also factors.
As girls begin taking sports more seriously, boys are becoming — like their female friends — dissatisfied with their bodies. The percentage of men dissatisfied with their overall appearance jumped from 15 percent to 43 percent between 1972 and 1997. Thirty-eight percent of men want bigger pectoral muscles, while only 34 percent of women want bigger breasts.
According to a 2001 survey, 20 percent of young people who take muscle-building supplements or steroids do so to look better. The 200l NCAA study supports that number.
Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatrist who has studied body-image disorders among men, found that most teenage boys have an unnaturally muscular “ideal physique,” attainable only by using steroids.
“You feel a great sense of inadequacy, and steroids fill the gap,” says “Joseph,” an avid college weightlifter from New York who says he never used steroids but knew people who did.
Ironically, Pope's research has found that when female college students selected the most-desirable male bodies, they picked ones with 15 to 30 pounds less muscle than the bodies male college students rated as ideal.
For those trying to quit steroids, losing an artificially enhanced physique can be hard to bear. “There's a serious bout of depression, because it comes to a point where normally you're looking like Superman and you're lifting a phenomenal amount, but once you stop, it's a precipitous decline.
“So it almost compels you to continue and continue and creates an addictive cycle,” Joseph says.
Legislators acknowledge the lure of steroids for the young. “What this legislation does is protect our kids,” said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., who sponsored the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, which would add androstenedione and other steroid precursors frequently sold over-the-counter to the list of drugs that require a doctor's prescription.
— Kenneth Lukas