Rats, Drugs and Free-Range Kids

Readers — I was looking up “rat experiments” (don’t ask!) and came upon this baefrnnybn
incredible comic
 by Stuart McMillen, tracing the lure of drugs on two sets of rats: One group held in isolated pens, the other in “Rat Park” — a fragrant, outdoorsy pen filled with things to explore and a bunch of fellow rats.

If you read the comic, I think you’ll see the rat/kid analogy as plain as the whiskers on your face.


While we can’t precisely extrapolate from rats to humans, it does seem significant that when the rats are cooped up, isolated (but safe from cats!), they are desperate for any kind of escape. In this case — drugs. But when rats are free to explore and play with each other, they not only do not seek out drugs, they seem willing to endure withdrawal rather than have drugs cloud their lives.

Something to think about when we keep kids isolated, at home, to make sure they’re “safe.” – L.

, , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to Rats, Drugs and Free-Range Kids

  1. OPMom February 26, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    Again, ridiculous overreach on an otherwise sound position. There is precious little that rats and humans have in common. I believe Victor Frankl articulated it best. Rats: Stimulus-reaction. Humans: Stimulus-REASON-reaction. Not remotely the same chain. Rats have more in common with pine trees. Which also do poorly indoors. Shite, Lenore, tons and tons of saccharin doesn’t even give us cancer, and rats would not thrive on broccoli. Rest this one.

  2. Really Bad Mum February 26, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    @ opmom, are you serious? It has nothing to do with rat/human similarities, it is simply – lack of stimuli = lack of reaction, regardless of the process.
    If it light humour, that relates to Lenore’s message, how is that an over reach? Ffs!!!

  3. Reziac February 26, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

    The basic principle applies across a broad spectrum of animals:

    When stimulation is lacking, given a chance they’ll seek stimulation — in the case of young humans, by acting out, overeating, drink, drugs, etc.

    Remember that the wildest kids in college tend to be those who lived the most sheltered lives before they left home.

  4. Nicole 2 February 26, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

    Did you read the entirety of the comic OPMom? It specifically addresses the limitations of the research. And no, rats do not have more in common with pine trees than humans, rats are mammals just like us and have brains that function in much the same ways ours do. There are limits to the research, of course, but you can learn quite a bit about human behavior from animal models.

    The basic idea underlying the research is that having an enriching, healthy life is protective against addiction. Which has also been established in human research (kids involved in extracurricular activities are less likely to use drugs, for instance).

  5. BL February 27, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    I first saw reference to these two experiments in Cevin Soling’s documentary “The War on Kids” (which I strongly recommend). According to that film, the isolated-pen experiment was a major justification of the “War on Drugs”, the point being that recreational drugs are just so tempting they require extraordinary means to fight them (trashing the constitution, discarding rules of evidence and flouting laws against entrapment.) The outdoorsy pen was ignored for these purposes, of course.

    But I think this goes beyond drugs to other addictive behaviors (TV-watching, Facebook-checking every five minutes on the five minutes, e.g.) and other forms of confinement other than the literally physical (surveillance, scheduling every minute of the day).

  6. E February 27, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    If you know anyone that’s dealing with substance abuse, then you know that this conclusion is a gross oversimplification (as it’s presented here) despite whatever they may have learned from this experiment.

    That last frame actually talks about the difference in people who view the world as their park or their cage. Note the word “view”.

    There really aren’t that many people who would advocate for “cooped up and isolated” children even if some parents are less free range than others.

    I’d be sure to read another entry:

    ….just to understand the viewpoint of the cartoon author

  7. EricS February 27, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I guess you forgot about your own childhood OPMom? Or that of your friends when you were young? It’s always been this way, when you coop up kids with very little do (as it would be stuck indoors all the time), they get very restless. They will want to go out, do something. And the more you say “no”, the more they get frustrated. It’s this continued frustration that causes that “shaken bottle of soda” to explode when opened. In the case of children, even adults for that matter, they will lash out. Rebel. They will want to do what they aren’t allowed to. Anywhere from sneaking out, having sex, doing drugs, drinking, etc… Something to get their minds out of being stuck at home, and dealing with their parents. In many cases, an “in your face” to their parents.

    I had very little restrictions when I was a kid, as did many of my friends. Some of us didn’t even have a curfew. We were free to explore childhood, our neighborhood, take transit, come home when the lights came on, but in one condition…we accomplished our responsibilities. ie. do our chores, keep our grades up, and stay out of trouble (which they taught us how to do). If we didn’t hold up our end of the deal, we did get disciplined. We learned that when we did what were suppose to, we got to do what we wanted (within the confines of what we have been taught). And because we had this “freedom”, we actually did less of it, compared to those that didn’t get to as much as us. The “been there, done that” mentality. And found ourselves staying in as much as we were going out. We learned “balance”. We rebelled far less than those kids that grew up in very strict homes.

    That’s the human condition. We are social creatures, just like rats and mice. That is our genetic make up. It’s this social mentality that has allowed the human species to survive since the dawn of man. ie. strength in numbers. We are not rigged to be confined to one place for long periods of time. Our minds, and eventually our bodies cry out for more. And when we don’t get it, we react negatively. This “children staying at home” thing has only started become a “normal” thing in the last 10-15 years. Same time when the internet was reaching it’s height. No coincidence the mental change of people changed at the same time. It also doesn’t help when kids’ frustrations get misdiagnosed as ADHD, and they get prescribed Ritalin, or some other type of drugs. They are just masking the issue, not fixing the problem. I’m sure there are legit kids with ADHD, but I’m also certain, most diagnosed with it just don’t get out much.

  8. BL February 27, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    “Same time when the internet was reaching it’s height. No coincidence the mental change of people changed at the same time.”

    I agree with most of your post, but not this. What has the internet to do with it? If technolgy were the cause, why didn’t this all happen with the onset of television? Or even radio?

    Everything isn’t caused by technology.

  9. E February 27, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    @EricS, OPMom’s post wasn’t trying to suggest that kids SHOULD be helicoptered and “not get out much”, it was expressing opinion about the science side.

    I can draw my own conclusions about substance abuse based on what I’ve read, what I’ve observed, but it doesn’t make it science.

    It appears heroin is making a come back. No one would suggest that the last time it was popular, that the users in the 70s had grown up in a suffocating environment.

    There are lots and lots of good ideas expressed here. I’m not sure this is one.

    David Sheff (and his son Nic) offer great insight into serious/dangerous drug addiction and recovery. Nic was probably raised as free range as most any kid you’d know. They’ve both written (and spoken) extensively on the topic.

    It would serve parents (if they are interested in the topic) to read some of their writings rather than rely on a rat study.

  10. Ann February 27, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    Yeah, I agree that this is oversimplification of the drug problem. Drug use is actually down these days among young people. When was it at its highest point? Back in the sixties and seventies when young adults were dropping out and communing freely with each other?

    Kids today, from what I’ve seen, aren’t all that interested in roaming the streets getting into trouble. They’re the ones wanting to stay home playing video games, their parents aren’t forcing them to. I’ve got to kick my kids out of the house! They prefer being comfy inside with devices, and have no interest in taking drugs.

    Who are the kids on drugs and smoking nowadays? Probably the gang members, who ARE the kids running the streets.

  11. mobk February 27, 2014 at 11:43 pm #

    Love his comics, some of his others are well worth a read too!

  12. E February 28, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    @Ann, I’m not sure your suggestion that kids doing drugs these days are gang members is accurate. Again, if parents are interested, there are lots of resources out there. Often schools even offer programs for parents to educate them about the current risks/behaviors facing teens and drugs.

    But to cut to the chase, it’s not just gang members. There is such a high level of Rx drug usage in the US, that pills are often just a few steps away from a kid with no healthy fear. Rx drugs can lead to the use of street drugs (easier and cheaper).

    I have 2 middle class suburb kids that are 3 years apart. Both are out of HS now. The difference in just those 3 years as to what kids were doing before or during school events (football games, dances) was surprising even to my oldest son. Kids in college think taking someone else’s Rx ADHD meds are like taking Tylenol.

    The popularity of self-medicating and filling our medicine cabinets (in America) with pain, anxiety, sleep aids, etc seems to have trickled down to the next generation. They are self medicating as well.