Youth risk survey finds modest favorable trends
Kids mostly think risky behavior more common than it is
Results from 855 Island students in grades 7 through 12, who participated in a risk behavior survey, show a reduction in cigarette, marijuana, and other drug use compared to previous surveys, although alcohol use remains a concern. In addition, current levels of alcohol and marijuana use by Island high school students exceeds levels for their state and national peers.
The Dukes County Health Council Youth Task Force (YTF) conducted the 2006/2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey in February, in collaboration with the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools and the Southeast Center for Healthy Communities (SCHC) in Brockton. Cindy Doyle, YTF Coalition chairman, made a summary of the results available this week.
The complete results, in PDF form, are available by clicking the following links: Report I Background - Report II High School - Report III Middle School
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Every Martha's Vineyard public school student in grades 7 through 12 in attendance on February 19, 2007, took the survey on a volunteer basis. Sixth-graders were not included in the survey because they did not show dramatic changes in risk behaviors in past surveys that seventh- and eighth-graders did.
The task force's survey background report stated that several steps were taken to ensure valid results, such as conducting a visual check to remove answer sheets with clearly discernible patterns. The survey itself contained two false questions to elicit evidence of exaggeration or inconsistent answering or illogical answers. Following the data cleaning procedure, the percentage of enrolled students taking the survey was 78 percent.
The YTF administered similar versions of the youth risk behavior study, based on one from the Centers for Disease Control, to students in grades 6 through 12 in Island schools in 2000, 2002, and 2005.
Through a grant received this year, the YTF redid the survey with technical support from SCHC, keeping it similar enough that data from past surveys could be compared.
The SCHC, a program of Health Care of Southeastern Massachusetts, assists communities and organizations in developing effective substance abuse prevention strategies.
Facts versus perceptions
Although similar to previous surveys, this year's survey narrowed the focus to alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, dropping questions from the 2005 version regarding physical health, including sexual behavior.
Additional survey questions addressed mental health issues, including stress, depression, and suicidal ideation, as well as stealing, violence, and cheating at school. The survey also included questions to gauge students' perceptions about how many of their peers engage in risky behaviors, the consequences of the behaviors, parental and community disapproval, and whether they believed they would get caught.
"Recent social norms research shows that youths' perceptions of their peers' engagement in risky behaviors are often wrong (inflated) and the dramatic influence these perceptions have on their behaviors, even though these perceptions are inaccurate," the task force stated in a press statement which accompanied the release of the survey results.
Ms. Doyle, who attended a social norms conference in Cambridge this summer, explained that scientific research shows that presenting positive norms for children can influence their behavior. "By doing this survey, what we can say is there is a real difference in what kids are doing, compared to what they think other kids are doing," Ms. Doyle explained. "We can use the social norms piece to try to correct the misconceptions, which over time, affect the behaviors."
For example, the 2006/2007 survey results show that among Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) students, alcohol use is barely the norm, with 55 percent reporting current use. Although students' perception that many of their peers drink is correct, 94 percent of them misperceive the frequency of alcohol use, believing that students who drink alcohol do so six or more days a week, compared to actual use on two or fewer days.
High school students demonstrated a similar misconception about marijuana use. Although 70 percent of students did not use marijuana in the 30 days prior to the survey, 94 percent of them believed the typical student did use it.
The end results
Earlier this year, the YTF applied for a Drug Free Communities grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Questions required to quantify four core measures for the grant also were included on the survey, including students' current substance abuse, age of first use of substances, perception of risk of harm from substance use, and perception of parental disapproval.
The YTF will receive notification about the grant in early September. If awarded the five-year, $100,000 per year grant, the task force will hire a coalition coordinator and implement a strategic plan to strengthen and coordinate community efforts against substance abuse and mobilize the Vineyard community toward substance abuse prevention. According to the YTF's press statement, the strategic plan is based on the premise, "If you want to raise healthy kids, you have to create environments in which kids can grow and thrive."
Ms. Doyle said the task force plans to host a public forum this fall to present the survey results and the social norms concept to the community. "Our hope is that we can start the conversation the right way, and then continue it on an ongoing basis, not just have it a one-time event," she said.