17 June 2003 Drugs, alcohol less common than kids think

Daily Messenger, Canandaigua, N.Y.

To the editor

I would like to challenge the implications of the headline for a front-page story by Sarah Allen, Kids do what they want (Daily Messenger, June 11).

I recently completed a study of more than 8,000 middle and high school students from 28 schools across the nation and found very consistently that an overwhelming majority of kids actually have very healthy attitudes about alcohol, tobacco and other drug use but that they dont always act in accordance with those values.

What they do not have is an accurate perception of what their peers think and do about substance use. Across this nation young people uniformly believe that their peers are much more heavily involved in substance use than is actually the case. Moreover, they also believe that their peers are much more tolerant of negative consequences than is actually the case.

For example, in a survey of students from a western New York state county, 85 percent of sixth- and seventh-graders never consumed any alcohol. But 54 percent of those same sixth- and seventh-graders believed that the typical student in their grade drank during the year and 25 percent believed that the typical student drank at least monthly.

Fifty-two percent of 10th-graders from the same county never or rarely drank, while 24 percent consumed alcohol at least once per week. As problematic as we may see this, 95 percent of those 10th-graders believed that the typical peer in their grade drank at least monthly and more than half (58 percent) believed that the typical peer in their grade drank weekly or more often. These massive misperceptions are not confined just to alcohol.

We see the same patterns of misperception in tobacco use, in other illicit drug use, and in sexual behaviors.

What are the consequences of these misperceptions? Palmyra-Macedon junior Drew Coyne correctly stated that theres a subliminal pressure to conform and be part of the group.

Young people conform to perceived peer norms to fit in. Substance use increases because it is perceived that peers use more heavily and that it is expected of them. Speaking out against substance use is discouraged because they think they are alone in holding healthy values.

Heavy-user minorities confirm erroneous perceptions and are given license to act in accordance with their values because they and their peers think that behavior normative.

So, do kids do what they want? I say, No, not always. Kids by and large have very healthy attitudes and values about substance use; they just do not always act on those values.

Pervasive misperceptions get in the way of our young peoples freedom to act in accordance with their own values.

Several programs have now focused on correcting misperceived norms and found substantial reductions in substance use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.

These results and my own are in a new book published by Jossey-Bass available through Amazon.com, The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse Prevention, edited by H. Wesley Perkins.

David W. Craig, Walker Drive, Canandaigua

The writer is director of the Alcohol Education Project with H. Wesley Perkins and is a professor of biochemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (http://alcohol.hws.edu).