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Data Showing Decreased Teen Substance Abuse Requires Reevaluation

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The results of a University of Michigan long-term study of middle and high school students’ self-reported use of and attitudes toward tobacco, alcohol, and drugs might result in a headline such as the one that follows: “Smoking, drinking, and drug abuse decline among U.S. teens!” Many readers who see a headline such as this would experience a sense of relief, feeling perhaps that teens are finally coming to their senses. However, the data may not be quite that comforting; the statistics require intensive study, and the need to continue education and prevention remains a serious issue.
“Monitoring the Future,” the name of this study, has annually surveyed almost 50,000 students from 380 middle and high schools across the U.S. over the past 40 years, tracking the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs by students in grades 8, 10, and 12. The data from 2017 have many feeling optimistic as the amount of cigarette smoking, drinking of alcoholic beverages, and drug use by teens has declined by numbers that are statistically significant. Cigarette smoking showed a 40% decline compared to data from the 1990s; drinking, a 20% decrease; using illicit drugs, a 10% reduction. However, interpreting this data requires taking another look at other developing trends that appear less positive.
In 1975, smoking marijuana occasionally, for example, was previously seen as a “great risk” by 40.6% of high school seniors; today only 14.1% agreed with this statement. Not surprisingly, self-reported marijuana use among teens increased in 2017 for the first time in seven years. Respondents from the following groups admitted to using the drug at least once during the preceding year: seniors 37.1%, sophomores 25.5%, and eighth-graders 10.1%. While the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational use may be impacting teens’ perceptions of its “danger,” the result is that more middle and high school students are using the drug. In addition, vaping is becoming a common form of marijuana use. In 2016, almost no teens said that they had vaped marijuana; the current study showed about 21% of those surveyed have done this.
Alcohol and illegal drug use have also declined among the teens questioned. Regardless of the decrease in use, all of these substances remain a serious issue among teens. In fact, of those surveyed who admitted to drinking in the last 30 days, 19% of the seniors, 8% of the sophomores, and 2% of the eighth-graders responded that they drank to excess. Opioid use (5.7%) along with other illicit drugs such as cocaine (4.9%), crack (2.1%), LSD (6.3%), heroin (0.9%), crystal meth (0.8%—only seniors were asked) have also diminished in use. The fact that data shows that students continue to use alcohol and/or illegal drugs is a most distressing statistic for this, or any, population. Use of these substances on any kind of a regular basis impacts school attendance, attention, motivation, grades, and involvement in school activities.
As long as students are using mind-altering substances, whether it is occasionally or frequently, a little or a lot, legal or illegal, a problem exists that must be addressed. School administration, parents, and other professionals must continue to monitor the trends noted, observe what is happening with their students, and respond in a proactive, aggressive manner. Hopefully, with continued impetus and education, the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs among teens will continue to drop until it reaches zero. Now that would be a headline to celebrate.

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Data Showing Decreased Teen Substance Abuse Requires Reevaluation