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Parents and Teenagers Have Widely Different Perceptions on Drugs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll


March-April 1997

American parents and their children have different perceptions about various aspects of America's drug problem, and how parents respond. This difference is a highlight of a national survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC news of 618 parents of teenagers, and 527 young people 12 to 17 years old, included 441 teenage children of the parents surveyed (Richard Morin and Mario A. Brossard, "Communication Breakdown on Drugs," Washington Post, March 4, 1997, p. A1).

When asked if parents have "ever had a serious talk" with the child about illegal drugs, 85% of parents, in contrast to 45% of the teenagers, answered in the affirmative. "Some parents do not have formal talks with their teenagers about drugs but work it into the normal day-to-day conversation, thinking that's the more effective way to do it," said Lloyd Johnston, the University of Michigan expert on drug use who directs the National Household Survey on Drug Use and the Monitoring the Future Survey. He said some parents may be remembering talks they wished they had with their teenager, but that did not actually occur. [This is a fascinating explanation. Is it possible that in national surveys people report drug use that did not occur? -- EES]

When asked whether the child has seen illegal drugs being sold in his or her neighborhood, 54% of parents and 38% of teens answered yes. 44% of parents and 28% of teens said someone has offered to sell the child illegal drugs, and 49% of parents and 41% of teens said someone has offered to share illegal drugs with the child. 60% of parents said their child knows someone in school with a serious drug problem, while only 38% of teens said so. Most parents (55%) said teens have tried marijuana or other illegal drugs, while only 19% of the teens agreed. [Do these big differences -- characterized by The Washington Post as a "communication breakdown" and "generation gap" -- have important implications? Perhaps they reflect a characteristic teenage disregard of risks or dangers. Perhaps they reflect natural parental fears exaggerated by news media accounts and anti-drug advertising. Perhaps kids are blind to the dangers. Perhaps kids are really in less danger than adults believe. -- EES]

Although contrasting responses emerged concerning the prevalence of drugs in their own neighborhoods, there was agreement on some issues. Both parents and teenagers (84%) said illegal drugs are a major problem for teens across the country. 71% of parents and 65% of teens agreed that alcohol abuse is a bigger problem than drug abuse for young people in their communities. Both parents (43%) and teens (44%) agreed that one of the child's friends uses illegal drugs. In addition, they agree that conversations about drugs should start before a child becomes a teenager. Of the parents and teenagers who have had a serious conversation about illicit drugs, the majority of both groups agreed that the conversation helped.

Some parents who have used drugs claim that it is easier for them to talk to their teenager about drugs. Yet the survey found that children of parents who admit past drug use reported more frequently that they have used drugs themselves. 55% of parents admitted having used marijuana sometime in their life.

One in five teens said they have used illicit drugs, and six in 10 and teenagers and eight in 10 high schoolers said some students at their school use drugs. The survey found that most teens reject drugs and the people who use them, but 29% said they did not mind "hanging around" people who use drugs. 10% of teens surveyed said taking drugs "is just part of growing up," 8% said they enjoyed "being high on drugs once in a while," and a similar percentage of teens said drugs "help you forget your troubles."