Are High School Students Accurate or Clueless in Estimating Substance Use among Peers?

Article excerpt

Results from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey confirm that cocaine, marijuana, and cigarette use among high school students consistently increased during the 1990s. Half of students surveyed in 1999 said that they had at least one drink of alcohol, 35% had smoked cigarettes, 27% had smoked marijuana, and 4% had used cocaine in the previous month. One-third of students reported that they had five or more drinks of alcohol at least once (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000). Young people who use substances dramatically increase their chances of becoming drug dependent, their vulnerability to life-threatening accidents and injuries, and their risk for other problems related to substance abuse. Further, the use of alcohol and other drugs in the adolescent years has the potential to set patterns for future behaviors that have an impact on health beyond the adolescent years (Green & Ottoson, 1999).

Studies on college campuses suggest that students' beliefs regarding the attitudes and behaviors of their peers are important in terms of influencing their own behavior (Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). As a result, students may be more likely to engage in a behavior when it is perceived as typical or normative. Studies investigating alcohol use and binge drinking on college campuses consistently show that students tend to overestimate the extent of drinking on their campuses when compared to actual alcohol use (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986; Haines & Spear, 1996; Baer, Stacy, & Larimer, 1991). Further, those who perceive that most students on campus are binge drinkers are at increased risk of being binge drinkers themselves (Page, Scanlan, & Gilbert, 1999). Unfortunately, little research exists examining the estimations of alcohol and other drug use in high schools and the relationship of these estimations to actual or reported use. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to assess high school students' estimations o f the prevalence of alcohol and other drug use and to examine the consistency between these estimations and reported use.

The three public high schools selected for the study (two in Idaho and one in Washington) were within a 100-mile radius of each other. School 1 had a total enrollment of 594 students and is located in a small university town with a population of approximately 20,000. The largest employers in this community are two major universities, the local school district, and the community hospital. School 2 is considerably smaller than School 1, with a student enrollment of 165. It is located in a small farming community of approximately 1,000 residents. Besides farming, the primary employers are the community hospital and construction and logging companies. School 3 is also located in a farming community, with a population of approximately 2,500. The enrollment in School 3 was 151 students. Aside from farming, the largest employers in this community are a steel manufacturing company and two major universities. More than 95% of the students attending all three high schools were Caucasian.



Subjects for this study were 223 high school students enrolled in health or physical education courses at three separate high schools in the Pacific Northwest. Health and physical education classes were selected because these are required for graduation and would provide a representative sample of students in each school. High School 1 had 72 subjects, High School 2 had 79, and High School 3 contributed 72. The mean age for this sample was 16.1 years. Fifty-six percent of the subjects were juniors, with 17% seniors, 15% freshmen, and 12% sophomores. The sample included 99 females and 124 males.

Survey Instrumentation and Administration

A survey was administered by trained graduate students in regularly scheduled health or physical education classes. Students were informed of the purpose of the study and asked not to place their names on survey forms. …


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