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Partnership for a Drug-Free America Reports on Teens' and Parents' Attitudes About Drugs


April 1996

According to a wide-ranging survey of the attitudes of children, teens, and their parents commissioned by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), teens are seeing fewer risks and greater benefits associated with the use of drugs, especially marijuana (Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1995 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, February 20, 1996).

Reported drug use by teenagers has been rising steadily since 1991, according to the University of Michigan Monitoring the Future Survey. Monitoring the Future, which is funded by the U.S. Government, surveys junior and high school students and has reported that between 1991 and 1995, past-year use of any illicit drug by 8th graders rose from 11.3 percent to 21.4 percent. Past-year use of illicit drugs by 10th graders went from 20.4 to 33.3 percent between 1992 and 1995, and for 12th graders 27.1 to 39.0 percent. Similar increases have been found for reported use of marijuana. The percent of 8th graders reporting use of marijuana in the past year rose from 6.2 percent to 15.8 percent between 1991 and 1995. For 10th graders and 12th graders, those figures between 1992 and 1995 were 15.2 to 28.7 and 21.9 to 34.7, respectively.

The PDFA survey is the latest in a series of polls of parents and young people in grades 7 through 12 (ages 13-18, "teens") and grades 4-6 (ages 9-12, "pre-teens"). The organization has been commissioning the surveys periodically since 1986. Unlike the Monitoring the Future survey, the PDFA report on attitudes does not break down results by grade level (i.e., results for students in grades 7 through 12 are lumped together). The survey tracks teens' and parents' views about the dangers of drug use, parental involvement in teaching their children about drugs, and drug use by teens and their peers.

The report argues that tracking attitudes is important because changes in attitudes drive changes in drug use. Glorification of drug use by music groups, television, and movies and a drop in anti-drug information in the media have resulted in a change in attitudes, the report states. PDFA also says that public debate about the legalization of drugs is sending the wrong message to youth. For support, the organization points to survey results indicating that 35 percent of youth say they are hearing "more and more talk about legalizing marijuana." [This was the first year the question was asked, so no trend data is available. Teens involved in the survey do not appear to favor legalization of drugs. Fewer than one in five teens (18%) say adults over 21 should be able to smoke marijuana in private.]

Availability and Exposure. The percentage of teens reporting that marijuana is very easy to obtain increased from 47 to 57 percent between 1993 and 1995. There was a marked increase in the percentage of teens reporting that they have been offered drugs at school. Between 1993 and 1995, the percent of teens reporting that they had ever been offered drugs at school increased from 23 percent to 32 percent. The largest increases in teens agreeing to this question were among white and Hispanic students. 34 percent of white students said they had been offered drugs at school, up from 23 percent in 1993. For Hispanic students, that increase was from 28 percent in 1993 to 40 percent in 1995. For African American students, the number remained relatively stable (21 percent in 1995, 17 percent in 1993).

[Dr. Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan has argued that teen attitudes are more important factors in changing teen drug use than enforcement efforts to reduce availability. University of Michigan data has shown little change in teens' perception of availability over the last 20 years. Johnston has found that increased perception of the harmfulness of drugs was related to decreases in drug use during the 1980s. High school seniors have consistently reported that marijuana is "fairly easy" to "very easy" to obtain: 90.1% in 1979, down to 82.7% in 1992 and up to 88.5% in 1995. Averaging the University of Michigan data for 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, the percent reporting that marijuana is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain increased by 7.9 percentage points, from 65.1 to 73 percent between 1993 and 1995. That is higher than the PDFA data for students in grades 7-12, but the PDFA study only reports those who said marijuana was "very easy" to obtain.--Editors]

Greater numbers of pre-teens, especially African-American pre-teens, said they have friends who sometimes use marijuana (up from 7 percent in 1993 to 10 percent in 1995 for all pre-teens; up from 9 percent in 1993 to 15 percent in 1995 for African-American pre-teens).

For teens, there were even more marked increases in the percentages reporting they have friends who use marijuana. In 1995, 58 percent of teens said they have a friend who uses marijuana regularly, up from 46 percent in 1993 (66 percent of teens said a friend uses marijuana occasionally, an increase from 56 percent in 1993). Teens reporting friends' use of cocaine or crack cocaine is lower, but increasing for white and Hispanic students. 17 percent of white students said they have a friend who regularly uses cocaine or crack cocaine in 1995, compared with 12 percent in 1993. For Hispanic students, there was an increase from 18 percent in 1993 to 23 percent in 1995. (The numbers for African American students remained steady at 10 percent).

Benefits of Drug Use. Young people also reported in greater numbers in 1995 that there are benefits to using drugs or participating in drug activity. 44 percent of polled teens agreed strongly with the statement "being high feels good" in 1995, up from 36 percent reporting it in 1993. 44 percent of teens agreed that "marijuana helps you relax," up from 34 percent in 1993.

More teens reported that they agreed strongly or somewhat that selling drugs to make money is acceptable. Overall, 21 percent in 1995 said selling drugs to make money is acceptable, up from 17 percent in 1993. More African American teens than teens of other races said selling drugs is acceptable (33 percent of African American teens, 26 percent of Hispanic teens, and 18 percent of white teens).

14 percent of pre-teens agreed that using drugs makes them feel grown-up, with more African American pre-teens agreeing. 24 percent of African Americans pre-teens said using drugs makes them feel grown-up, compared with 17 percent of Hispanics and 10 percent of whites.

Risks of Drug Use. The percent of teens agreeing strongly that "taking drugs scares me" fell from 47 percent in 1993 to 36 percent in 1995. More African American teens agreed with that statement than teens of other races (44 percent of African Americans, 35 percent of Hispanics, 34 percent of whites).

Perceived physical, personal, and social risks of regular use or experimentation with marijuana also declined for every question asked by PDFA, although fears about using drugs are still very strong. There was a significant decrease in the percent of teens reporting that they do not like to hang around with people who use drugs, with higher percentages of African Americans agreeing (48 percent of African Americans, 37 percent of whites, and 36 percent of Hispanics). 40 percent said that using drugs helps to feel more accepted in a group of people who use drugs (41 percent of whites and 38 percent of African Americans and Hispanics). 25 percent of teens reported that they wished they know better ways to refuse pressure to use drugs (33 percent of African Americans, 29 percent of Hispanics, and 20 percent of whites).

64 percent of teens believe there is great risk of becoming hooked on marijuana, down from 74% in 1993. 67 percent believe there is a great risk that people who use marijuana will go on to use hard drugs, down from 73 percent in 1993. Teens also see less risk of dying from use of marijuana, down from 64 percent in 1993 to 58 percent in 1995. 48 percent of teens say there is a great risk of contracting AIDS from smoking marijuana, declining from 53 percent in 1993.

Parents' Use. PDFA reports that 60 percent of parents with children or teens under the age of 19 said they had ever used marijuana (up from 54 percent in 1993). 17 percent reported ever using cocaine, and 12 percent said they had used LSD. Reported use of marijuana in the past year for parents fell for African American parents (25 to 12 percent) and increased slightly (but not significantly) for white and Hispanic parents (9 to 11 percent, 12 to 15 percent).

The percentage of African American parents reporting use of heroin and ecstasy declined between 1993 and 1995. 10 percent of African American parents reported in 1993 ever trying heroin, compared with 4 percent in 1995. For ecstasy, often considered a drug used by whites, there was a drop in the percent of African American parents reporting ever using the drug from 10 percent in 1993 to 2 percent in 1995. Reported use of heroin for white parents was 3 percent in 1993 and 2 percent in 1995. For Hispanic parents, reported use of heroin went from 3 percent in 1993 to 6 percent in 1995. Use of ecstasy for white and Hispanic parents showed a similar divergence (3 percent in 1993 to 2 percent in 1995 for whites and 2 percent in 1993 to 6 percent in 1995 for Hispanics).

Parents' Attitudes About Drugs. 23 percent of parents say there is nothing they can do about drugs, with Hispanic parents more likely to agree (37 percent of Hispanic parents agreed strongly or somewhat, 33 percent of African American parents, and 19 percent of white parents). Roughly a third of parents said it should be acceptable for people over the age of 21 to smoke marijuana in private, with 34 percent of African Americans agreeing, 28 percent of whites, and 26 percent of Hispanics.

A high percent of parents believe that if kids smoke marijuana, they are more likely to use other drugs (81 percent overall, 85 percent of Hispanic parents, 82 percent of white parents, and 73 percent of African Americans). 15 percent of parents say marijuana is less harmful than cigarettes (19 percent of African Americans, 16 percent of Hispanics, and 14 percent of whites). 26 percent of parents agreed that they would be more worried if their child smoked marijuana than if they were drinking to get drunk, and the same percent said they would worry more about their child smoking cigarettes than trying marijuana.

79 percent of parents responded that parents should tell their children never to use drugs at all, and 76 percent said they would be upset if their child tried marijuana.

Parents underestimate teens' exposure to and use of drugs. 34 percent of parents of teens in grades 7-12 say their children may have been offered drugs, while 52 percent of teens in that grade range say they were.

Drug Education. 77 percent of teens say a parent (or grandparent) has talked with them about drugs. Only 19 percent say they talk with parents often, while 30 percent say they have discussed drugs once or twice and 20 percent say they have never discussed drugs. African American teens are more likely to say they talk with their parents often about drugs than white or Hispanic students. 27 percent of African American teens say they discuss drugs often with a parent, 25 percent say they have talked once or twice, and 17 percent report never talking with a parent about drugs. For white teens, 16 percent said they talk often with parents, 31 percent once or twice, and 20 percent never. 23 percent of Hispanic students say they talk with parents often, 29 percent once or twice, and 21 percent never.

The survey found an apparent communication gap between parents and their children about drug education. 95 percent of parents of teens in grades 7-12 say they have talked with their children about drugs, but only 77 percent of teens say they have.

Anti-drug advertising and commercials seem to reach roughly a third of teens on daily basis, down from almost half of teens in 1993. 33 percent of white teens, 46 percent of African American teens, and 40 percent of Hispanic teens said they were exposed to an anti-drug message in a commercial or advertisement at least once every day.

Young people who learn from their parents about the dangers of marijuana are less likely to try the drug, the survey finds. Of children who learned about marijuana from their parents, 21 percent reported use of marijuana in the past year, compared with 43 percent of teens who had not. 26 percent of teens said they had learned "a lot" from their parents, 41 percent said they learned "a little," and 29 percent said they had learned "nothing."

The survey was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and was conducted by Audits and Surveys Worldwide, Inc. The 1995 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) surveyed 9,342 people (6,096 teens, 2,424 pre-teens, and 822 parents).

PDFA was established in 1986 by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The Partnership is a coalition of volunteers from communication industries who use the media to change attitudes about the dangerousness of drug use and to prevent drug use in children and adults.

[This survey provides fascinating data about attitudes and experience about drug use. I was struck by the differences among races in a number of areas: the feeling that parents could do nothing about drugs was almost twice as high among Hispanic parents compared to white parents. White parents and grandparents talk with their children about drugs much less frequently than African American and Hispanic parents. I was also struck by the large number of teens who fear dying or contracting AIDS from smoking marijuana.--EES]

[For a copy of the report, contact Partnership for a Drug-Free America at 405 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10174, 212-922-1560.]