June 16, 1998 ANN ARBOR---Changes in student attitudes about marijuana, not a general rise in rebellious or delinquent behavior among the teen-age children of baby boomers, are driving recent increases in the use of the drug by 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders. That is one of the key findings from a University of Michigan analysis of the reasons behind historic fluctuations in teen marijuana use published in the current (June 1998) issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
The analysis, conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research by Jerald G. Bachman, Lloyd D. Johnston, and Patrick M. O'Malley, is based on data from the annual Monitoring the Future study of teen drug use and attitudes. The research is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health.
The new analysis by Bachman, a social psychologist, and colleagues, is based on surveys of 61,000 high school seniors from the classes of 1976 through 1996, and of 88,000 eighth-graders and 82,000 10th-graders from 1991 through 1996. It examines how marijuana use is related to student attitudes about the drug itself and to a variety of general "lifestyle" factors, including school grades, truancy, hours spent working, average weekly income, religious commitment, political beliefs, and the number of evenings a week that teens hang out with friends.
"Individual differences in some of the lifestyle factors we examined are important risk factors in determining which students are likely to use marijuana---or other drugs, for that matter," says Bachman. "But as important as they are, these lifestyle factors alone cannot account for the recent changes in marijuana use."
The data from the Monitoring the Future study show that seniors' use of the drug increased during most of the '70s and decreased throughout the '80s. Among all three age-groups studied, use has increased in the '90s.
Teen disapproval of the drug and perceptions of marijuana's hazards present a mirror-image of this usage pattern: in years when average levels of disapproval and perceived risk are high, average levels of use are low. (See figure.)
Earlier analyses from the Monitoring the Future study also have shown that marijuana use goes down when perceived risk and disapproval go up. What the new analyses show is that these changes cannot be explained by any shifts in the other lifestyle factors that were examined.
"Young people did not become distinctly more conservative or conventional in the 1980s, nor did they become distinctly less so in the 1990s," says Bachman. "So if we want to know why marijuana use is on the rise again, there is little value in asking whether young people are somehow becoming more rebellious or delinquent in general, because the evidence indicates that this is not the case.
"We need to ask why it is that young people have become less concerned in recent years about the risks of marijuana use, and why they do not disapprove of such use as strongly as students did just a few years earlier," says Bachman.
While the analysis does not include information on the reasons underlying teen changes in attitude about marijuana's harmfulness, the authors have several possible explanations. One is that teens today have had less opportunity to learn vicariously about the hazards of drugs by observing drug users among their acquaintances or public figures. Also, the decline in marijuana use during the 1980s may have lulled many members of social institutions, including government, schools, media and families, into a false sense of complacency about the problem of adolescent drug use.
The authors believe that young people DO pay attention to information about the risks and consequences of drug use, especially when it is presented in a realistic and credible fashion.
"The implication," Bachman concludes, "is that prevention efforts should include realistic information about the risks and consequences of marijuana use and should present this kind of information not just once but repeatedly."
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