Drugs lose some allure with teens

Substance abuse registers a subtle but significant drop, hinting at

While listening to music that makes parents reach for the earplugs - let's say, Limp Bizkit - is still culturally de rigueur for today's youth, signs are growing that another form of teenage rebellion may be fading.

Drugs - an emblem of American teens for generations - are losing some of their allure. A growing number of studies and interviews with teens across the country hint that marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit substances are not the status symbols they once were.

The shift in attitudes, though still tentative, may hold implications for how the nation wages its war on drugs.

"We're seeing some really fundamental changes" in teens' attitudes, says Howard Simon of the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) in New York, which released a survey this week. "Attitude drives behavior," which means this may "signal the beginning of a longer trend away from drug use among young people."

Take Jenne Link and her friends. They now consider drugs downright uncool. "Nobody I know does drugs," says the senior at Parkway West High School in suburban St. Louis. "In fact, I'm illiterate when it comes to drugs," says the teen, whose attitude is summed up by a yellow smiley face pinned to her football jersey. "Sometimes you hear about so-and-so getting high over the weekend or whatever, but that's about it."

Nor is the change just among teens in suburbia. The nationwide study released this week by PDFA shows that the numbers of teenagers taking a variety of illegal drugs leveled off or declined slightly between 1997 and 1999.

It also found that 4 in 10 teenagers think that "really cool" kids don't do drugs, up from 3.5 in 1998. While the shift is modest, it comes at the end of a decade in which teen drug use has risen relentlessly.

"Drugs are so old-fashioned," says Debra Marks, a high school student from Little Rock, Ark., twisting her hair as she checks out a boy. "I don't know anyone who uses them, and if they do they are losers."

Theories for the current decline include more-effective drug education - both at home and at school - better peer counseling, and a generational ebb and flow of teen drug use.

Cool, cafeteria-style

Part of the reason for the change in attitudes may be that, in today's fragmented society, no one definition of "cool" exists anymore. Consider that the Top 40 list now makes room for just about everything - candy pop music like the Backstreet Boys, Lilith-Fair rockers like Fiona Apple, and guitar legend Santana - to say nothing of Mambo king Lou Bega, the man who's made spats trendy for the first time since World War I.

This cafeteria-style definition of cool means it's easier for teens to find a place they fit in, without feeling pressured to try drugs or be branded a geek.

"We're herd animals. It's so much easier to do anything if you're part of a group," says Gerald Dugal, director of counseling and health at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

"Cool" for students at the Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette, Colo., ranges from tank tops from Abercrombie & Fitch to getting good grades - without studying. "What makes you popular at my school is if ... you know all the answers, but you weren't even trying," says senior Claire Bonial.

But that's not to say that teens never feel pressured to use drugs. One of the hottest things for Denver-area youth is going to all-night "raves." At these parties, many of the teens do drugs - "speed and Ecstasy" - in order to stay up all night dancing. That tends to make those who don't want to do drugs, like Claire, feel left out. "It would be weird if everyone else were doing drugs, and you're not," she says.

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles teens often face in making healthy choices about drugs is feeling that they don't have a supportive peer group. Thus many groups are focusing on teaching youths leadership skills.

"We are reaching more kids than ever before, and the kids we're reaching are reaching out to others more than ever before," says Gary Faucher, director of the New Hampshire Teen Institute, a statewide nonprofit that operates such programs.

Still, even teen peer pressure may be abating when it comes to drug use. The PDFA study, for instance, showed that fewer teens are finding it difficult to reject a friend's invitation to use marijuana - 11 percent now compared with 14 percent last year.

Experts caution that less interest in drugs may be just a cycle, not a long-term trend. For example, after kids see older siblings get into trouble with drugs, they may steer clear.

But their younger siblings might be more likely to experiment in a kind of "generational forgetting," according to Alyse Booth, spokeswoman for National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York.

Also, alcohol's popularity shows little sign of waning among teens. It is the drug of choice among Jenne's circle of friends in St. Louis. "There's beer at every party," she says.

And while adults criticize Hollywood's pernicious influence, fewer teens believe that popular culture glamorizes drug use. For example, 42 percent of teens think rock and rap stars make drug use look tempting, down from 48 percent in 1998, the PFDA study found.

White dust on silver screen

Yet experts aren't quick to credit the media. "If you think about 'American Beauty,' the most sympathetic lead character is a teen drug dealer," says Mathea Falco, president of a New York-based group called Drug Strategies, which publishes an evaluation of drug-prevention approaches.

Others flat-out reject the claim that more teens are walking the straight and narrow. "That's baloney," says Gerald Celente, executive director of The Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Both teens and adults, he says, are likely to tell pollsters what they want to hear. "Do you know how huge Ecstasy is on campus right now? Kids are doing as much drugs as ever."

A Little Rock, Ark., teen, who would only say his name was John for fear of expulsion, agrees. "Nothing has changed. You can get pot in the hallway if you want it," he says, standing beside a beat-up Oldsmobile in a Central High School parking lot. "Teenagers may be saying that they aren't using drugs anymore, but they are lying. I see it all the time. My friends use drugs."

Still, observers are encouraged to see even a slight change in attitudes. In addition to the PFDA study, other recent evidence points to less interest in drug use:

*A nationwide survey by Teenage Research Unlimited in Illinois found that only 13 percent of teens think it's cool to do drugs, down from 24 percent in 1994.

*A CASA study showed that the number of teens who said they never would use drugs jumped from 4 in 10 in 1997 to 6 in 10 last year.

*Last month, cheerleaders boycotted an event sponsored by New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R), saying they strongly disagreed with his position on decriminalizing marijuana.

The Bernalillo Middle School squad wouldn't participate in the annual highway cleanup event, concerned his position sends a mixed message, considering the school has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs.

Just Say ... something

However much attitudes are or aren't changing, experts continue to debate the best approach to take from here in curbing drug use. Particularly controversial are antidrug education initiatives.

Some critics believe the current zero-tolerance, just-say-no approach mandated by the government under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act is inadequate because there is no risk-reduction component.

"After admonishing them to abstain, there is no place educators can say, if you do try it, here are some things you should know," says Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Lindesmith Center-West in San Francisco.

But others argue that education is getting more sophisticated, moving away from scare tactics to role-playing and teaching teens how to say no.

"School prevention programs are getting better," says Ms. Falco. An important element, she says, is helping kids see, through advertisements and educational programs, that not everyone is doing drugs.

"The antidrug commercials are good," agrees Jenne. "Like the one about the girl on [heroin] smashing things. I listened to that one. I don't think the guys would pay any attention, though."

The commercials are a source of group amusement for St. Louis teen Brian Fogle and his friends. "We kind of laugh at the commercials if there are a bunch of us watching when one comes on," says Brian, a sophomore at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in Ladue, Mo.

But he says drugs aren't much of a problem at his private school. "It's mostly marijuana, and it's mostly a few of the really popular people - or at least they think they're popular."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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