Teenage boys are increasingly feeling under pressure to emulate the muscular images they are bombarded with on social media, TV programmes such as Love Island and Hollywood blockbusters like Black Panther. This is leading to a new epidemic: steroid use is growing in popularity.
Recent media reports suggest that up to a million people in the UK are regularly taking anabolic-androgenic steroids (ASS). Appearance, rather than sporting performance, seems behind this, with young males most at risk of dependency. The drugs are easily available online, with sites such as Instagram and Snapchat used to target vulnerable youngsters.
Regularly taking AAS can lead to potentially dangerous medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and liver disease, and even heart attacks and infertility. Misusing these drugs can cause mood swings and aggression – so-called “roid rage”. After injecting steroids for some time, coming off them suddenly can result in depression and anxiety. And when young men see impressive changes to their body, it can be difficult to persuade them to stop using the drugs.
I recently interviewed a young man who had taken up bodybuilding as a teenager and combined frequent weightlifting with cycles of steroid use. By 18, he had gained so much muscle he weighed over 19 stone. He admitted that his obsession stemmed from low self-esteem and a desire to “feel more masculine”. When he tried to reduce his steroid intake, the withdrawal effects included anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. He eventually got help, but the negative impact of the drugs was profound.
The Scottish government has set out a significant programme of reform to tackle Scotland’s drug problem, with a focus on prevention and recovery. But there is an urgent need to respond to the diversification of drug markets and the increased use of AAS. I believe education can play a valuable role in helping youngsters to understand and avoid the toxic effects of these drugs.
The health and wellbeing experiences and outcomes within Curriculum for Excellence emphasise developing the knowledge and skills that students need for positive mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing.
When substance misuse is addressed in the classroom, Education Scotland recommends that teachers draw upon specialist support outwith the learning community. In secondary schools, PE teachers need to collaborate with elite fitness coaches and health professionals to educate pupils – particularly boys – about the risks of steroids and about building strength and fitness naturally.
Given the influence of social media, celebrity culture and the endless chain of action and superhero movies, the obsession with bodybuilding will, inevitably, continue. Schools must play a leading role in enabling young men to become more informed about getting fit without resorting to drugs.
Ross Deuchar is a professor, assistant dean and director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice at the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Education