Ongoing National Study Shows Dangerous Trends in Teen Attitudes Toward Drugs

In the fight against drug abuse among young adults, information about students’ attitudes and experiences is vital. Since 1975, Monitoring the Future – an ongoing research study – has surveyed 50,000 young adults each year to find out their opinions on topics ranging from gender to ecology and new trends in drug or alcohol use. The 2009 survey findings show interesting results in the realm of substance abuse, such as an increase in marijuana use, a decline in use of hallucinogenic drugs and potentially worrisome trends in teen attitudes toward some drugs.

Funded under competitive grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future is based at the University of Michigan inside the Institute for Social Research. Surveys are sent to 8th, 10th and 12th graders across the U.S. Questions measuring experiences with drugs and alcohol focus on students’ age of first use, their attitudes toward use, how available they perceive the drugs to be and connections between peer groups and drug use.

The goal is to learn which factors, such as social changes and an individual’s transitions during development, may contribute to certain behaviors over time. Follow-up surveys are also sent to 12th graders upon leaving high school in an attempt to track young adult behaviors further.

Lloyd Johnston, University of Michigan principal investigator for Monitoring the Future, said in a 2009 press release that marijuana use is seeing a gradual increase, in comparison to a nearly ten-year decline. About 12 percent of U.S. 8th graders, 27 percent of high school sophomores and one-third of high school seniors reported trying marijuana in 2009. He also said young adult beliefs about the level of danger or risk of using marijuana is declining, as is overall teen disapproval of the drug. This is significant because the attitudes of teens have a strong ability to affect drug usage trends.

Johnston points out a connection between marijuana use and an increase of overall illegal drug use from 2007 to 2009, stating that marijuana remains the most popularly used illegal drug – and that illicit drug use as a whole tends to follow trends in marijuana.

Hallucingens, such as LSD, seem to be experiencing a gradual decline in use, especially among 12th graders. Cocaine usage has reached its lowest point since the 1990s, and drugs like amphetamines and tranquilizers have also reached lower levels of use than a decade ago. In general, the prescription drug category, including analgesic drugs like Vicodin, is not showing a dramatic increase in usage, but rather a level trend. OxyContin, however, is showing an increase in popularity from 2002 among sophomores – a trend Johnston says will require more research to solidify.

Johnston notes that some dangerous drugs are experiencing a reduction in perceived threat or risk among teens, including LSD, ecstasy and inhalants. The numbers of teens who view these drugs a “great risk” have fallen noticeably, which could create a resurgence in use.

Alcohol usage shows a steady decline over time among 8th graders, 10th graders and high school seniors. Johnston suggests that legal measures to curb underage drinking may be reducing teen drinking as a whole.

The Monitoring the Future survey continues to provide valuable information about teen drug and alcohol use, revealing successes in some areas, but also pointing to potentially dangerous trends in teen attitudes toward drugs.