Alcohol survey finds perception is not reality
Martha's Vineyard parents underestimate the percentage of their own middle school children who use alcohol and marijuana and overestimate the number of children outside their own families who use alcohol and marijuana.
That is one of the findings of a survey distributed by the Dukes County Health Council Youth Task Force to the parents of seventh and eighth grade students in the six Island towns this past summer.
Nearly all of the parents who responded said they do not provide alcohol to middle school students in their home, but they believe a significant number of other parents do.
The survey highlights discrepancies in the perceptions of parents, compared to actual use measured in a separate, earlier survey of students.
Health Care of Southeastern Massachusetts, a non-profit organization that contracts with state agencies to provide strategic and technical support for local groups like the Youth Task Force, conducted the survey, which was sent to 327 households. A total of 105 people responded.
According to task force members, the survey was done using accepted scientific methodology, and includes safeguards to gauge the accuracy of the results. They are confident the survey results present an accurate snapshot of middle school parents' views.
The Youth Task Force is a coalition of youth leaders, health practitioners, healthcare and social service organizations, public officials, educators, law enforcement officers, and community members formed to promote health and wellness for youth ages 12 to 20. The coalition has secured multi-year state grants totaling nearly $1 million to combat drug and alcohol abuse among Island youth.
In conversations with parents, task force members say they hear over and over that Island parents have a lax attitude toward underage alcohol use and drug use. Task force coordinator Theresa Manning says the survey results rebut that contention.
"Most parents are working hard on helping to protect their kids," said Ms. Manning. "Instead of the thought that parents are really laid back and don't watch their kids, they are in fact diligent and are relying on the networks in their community to keep their kids safe."
She acknowledges, however, that surveys show that safety net is frayed when middle school students reach high school. Previous surveys show Island high school students use alcohol and drugs at levels significantly higher than the state and national averages. Those surveys show use increases dramatically when eighth grade students transition to high school.
"Some of these protective measures are not easy to enforce when these kids get to be high school students," said Ms. Manning. "Our job is to bridge that transition."
Perception and reality
When asked about their own children's use of alcohol, 99 percent of the survey respondents said they believed their middle school student had not used alcohol in the past 30 days. A separate survey of middle school students conducted earlier this year indicates that 11 percent of seventh and eighth grade students report current use of alcohol. But according to the survey, parents think alcohol use among other children is higher than it actually is. A total of 59 percent thought alcohol use among middle school children is higher than 11 percent.
The misperception is even starker when parents were asked about marijuana use. The survey showed 99 percent of parents thought their children did not currently use marijuana. In the earlier survey, three percent of middle school students reported current use. When it came to students outside their own household, the vast majority of parents, 97 percent, thought marijuana use is higher than it actually is.
The survey found that only two percent of middle school parents provided alcohol to their own children, but they think that 12 percent of other parents do. Only one percent of parents said they believe alcohol use by seventh and eighth graders is a "rite of passage," but they believe 17 percent of other parents believe that.
A total of 67 percent of parents said they set curfews for children each evening they go out, depending on the circumstances. They believe only 31 percent of other parents set curfews for their children.
When asked if they call other parents to ask about adult supervision when their child goes to a friend's house for a social gathering, 90 percent said they do, but they think only 52 percent of other parents do the same.
Youth Task Force members say discrepancies in the attitudes of parents are important to identify, so they can be incorporated into the ongoing "social norms" campaign. The task force has adopted a social norms marketing approach that they say has produced significant results in reducing alcohol and drug use in other places. The campaign works as a sort of reverse peer pressure. By pointing out the results of research and surveys that show most parents and children make good choices about alcohol and drugs, it reduces the pressure some feel to join the relatively small group of parents or children making unhealthy choices.
"Most parents are doing a fabulous job," said task force member Cindy Doyle. "But they think they're the only ones that are. We want to change the culture and tighten up the safety net. It will empower them to keep doing the good job they are doing through high school."
The latest parent survey will be used to guide the task force's public relations campaign. That campaign reinforces positive messaging through advertising, store displays, posters, and interactive training.
A similar survey of high school parents is planned in the future.