A new report finds that more kids say they are using alcohol and other drugs, but many parents are unable or unwilling to deal with the issue — a bad combination when declining support for prevention and cultural apathy about the issue leave parents as the last and sometimes only line of defense against adolescent drug use.
The 2009 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), released March 2 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) and MetLife Foundation, reported rather dramatic year-over-year spikes in past-month alcohol use (up 11 percent) and past-year use of marijuana (up 19 percent) and ecstasy (up 67 percent) among U.S. students in grades 9-12.
PDFA chairman and CEO Steve Pasierb noted that all three are “social drugs,” and the survey of more than 3,200 students, conducted by Roper Public Affairs, found “a growing belief in the benefits and acceptability of drug use and drinking.” For example, the percentage of teens agreeing that “being high feels good” increased from 45 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009, and those who said “friends usually get high at parties” increased from 69 percent to 75 percent. Thirty percent of students surveyed strongly agreed that they “don't want to hang around drug users,” down from 35 percent in 2008.
“The resurgence in teen drug and alcohol use comes at a time when pro-drug cues in popular culture – in film, television and online – abound, and when funding for federal prevention programs has been declining for several years,” according to a PDFA press release on the survey.
The reported spike in alcohol and other drug use and attitudinal shifts are startling enough to warrant skepticism about the validity of the findings. However, Pasierb notes that the PATS survey has been conducted using the same methodology for the past 21 years. The most recent Monitoring the Future survey, released in December, also found that use of illicit drugs has leveled off or increased after years of steady declines, and that youth attitudes about drug use appear to be softening. The 2009 PRIDE Survey of 6th- to 9th-graders reported small increases in current drug use, as well.
The PATS survey found that kids are almost as likely to get information on drugs from the Internet and websites like Youtube as from their parents, school, or media ads. “The preponderance of information that kids get online about drugs is pro-use, and to teens it's more credible,” Pasierb told Join Together.
Perhaps the most surprising survey result is the reported increase in use of ecstasy — a drug that, unlike alcohol and marijuana, has seemed to largely disappear from public consciousness since the mid-2000s. If the survey results are to be believed, more teens are now using ecstasy on a monthly (6 percent) or annual (10 percent) basis than at any point since 2004, and reported lifetime use is higher than ever reported since 1998.
Pasierb said that federal data shows that availability of ecstasy has not declined since 2001-02, and that prices for the drug have fallen. “There was just more news coverage then,” he said.
“I don't buy the argument that drug use is cyclical,” said Pasierb. “I think it's generational, and based on what we talk to our kids about.” Drug-use trends among youth are “very malleable,” he added, and what is considered cool or popular can change rapidly from the time a kid enters high school to when they graduate.
Parents Waging a Lonely Battle — Or Not
About 20 percent of the parents surveyed by PATS believed that their children had gone beyond the experimental phase in use of alcohol or other drugs. However, almost half of these parents either did not take any action (25 percent) or waited for between a month and a year to address the perceived problem (22 percent).
Parents of children engaging in non-experimental drug use were less confident in their ability to influence their kids' drug-use decisions, according to the survey, and were more likely to believe that all teens will experiment with drugs and that occasional use of alcohol or marijuana is tolerable.
“Parents with drug-using kids have never been served by our field,” said Pasierb. “They're the outliers, and they should be the focus.” PDFA has developed a program called Time to Act that is designed to improve parental knowledge about teen alcohol and other drug use, set rules and boundaries, intervene when necessary, and seek outside help when needed.
“Government prevention programs have all been defunded, and society is not on our side. It's all on the parents now,” said Pasierb. “Parents are convinced that their kids are getting all this (drug prevention) in school, and it's just not true. The doctor, school, or football coach is not going to step in.”