Teen Survey: Drugs Of Choice, Coping With Stress, And More

About 60% of Staples High School seniors drink regularly. A quarter use marijuana. The same number vape — mostly THC.

Those are some of the headline-grabbing statistics announced this week by the Westport Prevention Coalition. Working with the Search Institute, Westport Department of Human Services and Positive Directions, they conducted an anonymous survey of 800 7th through 12 graders in April.

In addition to substance use, questions covered developmental relationships, COVID stress and racial justice.

Results were presented at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. Yesterday afternoon, Westport public schools coordinator of psychological services Dr. Valerie Babich and Positive Directions prevention director Margaret Watt did a deeper dive into the statistics, on a Zoom call with Westport educators, youth workers, social service providers and students.

The bulk of the discussion involved the substance use findings. The survey asked about behaviors in the preceding 30 days. Teenagers were still wearing masks and supposed to be socially distanced; COVID continued to limit some of their interactions.

Key substance findings from the Westport Prevention Coalition survey.

Nonetheless, 60% of Staples seniors had had “more than a few sips” of beer in the previous month. For 7th graders, the number was 9%. It rose steadily, most noticeably starting in sophomore year.

Taken together, the 33% total of high school students who drank in the previous 30 days — during COVID — was higher than the Connecticut average in a survey conducted in 2019, before the pandemic.

Marijuana use and vaping begins around 9th grade. It rises in tandem over the years, peaking at 24% (marijuana) and 25% (vaping) by senior year.

Of the students who knew what they were vaping, 2/3 used THC; 1/3 used nicotine. In addition, 28% used multiple substances. But 13% did not know what they were inhaling.

Interestingly, tobacco and prescription drug misuse was virtually non-existent: 0 to 2% in all grades.

The Westport Prevention Coalition has undertaken an educational campaign. This is the front of a postcard. The other side helps parents talk about substance use with their youngsters.

As students get older, they reported, their parents’ disapproval of certain substances goes down. By senior year, only 63% of students said that their parents disapprove of marijuana.

In terms of perceived harm, 78% of high school students think that 5 or more drinks at a time, once or twice a week, is harmful. That means 22% do not believe it is bad.

81% of high school students think vaping is harmful.

In 7th grade, 74% of students surveyed thought that marijuana is harmful. By 12th grade, the number dropped to 34%.

COVID had a strong impact on Westport youth. More than half of students surveyed took steps to resolve pandemic-related problems. The majority said they accepted the reality of the new situation. However, only 34% reached out to others to talk about how they were feeling.

58% of the students felt connected to school staff. A whopping 94% said they felt connected to friends.

In tough COVID times, friends can be lifesavers.

Questions about developmental relationships with teachers revealed “moderate to high” responses. Students felt that they were challenged to grow, provided support, and expanded their possibilities.

Areas for improvement included inspiring possibilities for the future, exposure to new ideas, and introduction to people who could help them grow.

The final section revealed that 3/4 believe they have a role to play in ending racial injustice. A clear majority are aware of the impact of their own words and actions, in the social justice arena.

Data will be reviewed with school administrators, staff, mental health professionals and students. The Westport Prevention Coalition will then determine how best to turn the findings into solutions.

15 responses to “Teen Survey: Drugs Of Choice, Coping With Stress, And More

  1. Jack Backiel

    The first paragraph is jaw-dropping. I’m speechless.

  2. Thanks for the great coverage, Dan! Just want to encourage anyone interested in working on these issues to join the Westport Prevention Coalition! You can email me at mwatt@positivedirections.org or Kevin Godburn at kgodburn@westportct.gov

    • Joan Gillman

      Dan, Thank you for reporting on the survey. I have also heard that students often deliberately answer the questions falsely, especially as a larger number of them know the survey is not anonymous. The results may be aggregated before they are published, however, the State of Connecticut, Westport Schools and the Institute’s tech policies with their technology vendors all appear to give the technology companies permission to use the results and data “to improve their products and services” which for Google, as an example, suggests it can use the student results to adapt their algorithms to increase usage of YouTube, power their DeepMinds AI research and update their advertising algorithms for a student and even their household. Based on publicly available data on the technology service provider or administrator contracts, they are simply prevented for releasing or selling or sharing a student’s personal information. They are not prevented from using the data collected to profile a student or their household using their answers. We should not suggest the survey is anonymous. It is not. As students learn more this, they do not answer honestly or they do not participate.

      • Joan, I asked a question yesterday about anonymity. I was assured that it is completely anonymous, and that there was absolutely no way for individual names or information to be recorded.

        • PS: If students were concerned that the results were not really anonymous, wouldn’t they under-report — rather than over-report — substance use?

  3. Steve Doig ‘66

    While the age-related trends almost certainly are accurate, the magnitude of substance use might be taken with a grain of salt. The first year I started teaching college students in Arizona, a similar story came out about a big survey of drug and alcohol use among AZ high school students. When I brought it up in class, several of the freshmen laughed and said they remembered filling out the survey the year before. They were amused because many classmates hadnt taken the survey seriously, deliberately giving false answers, exaggerating their experience with such substances. One thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that self-reported surveys of socially-suspect behaviors and attitudes, like drug use or risky sex or racism, aren’t necessarily gospel. Young men, for instance, routinely exaggerate their number of sex partners.

    • During the presentation yesterday, I asked about accuracy. The answer was that Search Institute, which administers many surveys like these, says the accuracy is around +/- 5%.

      • That 5% would be the sampling error margin, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with accuracy or truth. I’m guessing from the 5% that about 400 students were surveyed (or, hopefully, about 400 in each grade.)

  4. David Webster

    I’m not sure why we’d be surprised by the number of high school seniors who drink and/or use weed. Those are substances that are legal and commonly used by anyone a mere 3 years older than them. So why is there a lot of pearl clutching over that? Of course 18 years olds do things before they are allowed to. Their parents drink and smoke, did we really think our high school seniors wouldn’t or shouldn’t? Frankly I’m thrilled they (apparently) don’t smoke cigarettes or abuse prescription drugs, which have bigger long term health issues.

    • Margaret Watt

      Yes, it’s great that they’re not smoking or misusing Rx drugs! More good news from the survey is that the majority of WPS students across 7th-12th are *not* using alcohol or other drugs. However, the alcohol use rates are higher compared with other youth data, and the level of marijuana use (which is still not legal) and low perception of harm point to a need for education. Other nearby communities have been able to significantly lower their youth substance use rates through education and other strategies.

      Generally we want parents to be aware that for each year that a young person delays first use of any substance, they reduce their likelihood of addiction by 14%. Also: Today’s marijuana is incredibly potent compared to anything parents may have experienced. When vaped, it can be virtually pure THC, which is associated with IQ loss, addiction, and psychosis in teens, especially those who use a couple of times a week, because their brains are still developing. We want to make sure everyone is aware that the health effects of substance use aren’t limited to what the drug does to the lungs or heart. There is a significant impact on the developing teen brain that is very different from the impact on the adult brain.

  5. Very believable. I’ve had children graduate from SHS in recent years and while they can’t confirm the specific numbers, they said the report sounded very believable. Kids are experimenting with everything these days and the legalization of “casual use” drugs is a gateway to behavior regardless of what some may think to the contrary. Even more alarming is the stories my kids have told me about Westport adults providing alcohol to minors at home because it’s “safer” for them to drink at home than going to Compo etc. That permissiveness mindset also contributes to normalizing alcohol & drug use at an earlier age. One’s brain fully develops at age 25 and the science – remember that battle cry – says kids partaking in controlled substances at an early age pay a price.

  6. Caryl Beatus


  7. Jack Backiel

    Steve, If the surveys are anonymous, why would anyone exaggerate the number of sex partners they had? It’s anonymous; you can’t impress anyone.