Student drug use may be higher than official statistics suggest

By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief

Official statistics used to analyze student drugs use at Nantucket High School (NHS) may underestimate the actual numbers, especially those obtained in the most recent survey, conducted using school-issued Chromebooks. Some school employees argue that the statistics are mostly accurate, but the data, which is obtained through an anonymous survey that asks students about what drugs they have used in the last thirty days, has come under fire from students, and the director of the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) admits that ASAP has also struggled with how valid the statistics are. 

“I think the data [from past paper-based surveys] is fairly accurate,” ASAP director Sue Mynttinen confirmed, but she was less confident about the most recent survey, administered in 2019. “We haven’t quite resolved if the last go around was accurate,” she admitted, citing large drops in reported student drug use as one of the reasons for her hesitance. While she found the drops “very positive” she didn’t know how legitimate they were. Since ASAP is the organization that primarily publicizes, analyzes and pays for these surveys, hesitance on their part is certainly relevant. 

The official statistics suggest that in 2019, roughly 22% of students had used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days, about 21% had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days, and around 20% had used marijuana in the same time period. The alcohol and marijuana figures represented drops from the 2017 data, which is the next most recent, as the survey is conducted once every two years. In 2017, the survey found alcohol use closer to 30% and marijuana use just over 28%.  The 2017 survey did not ask about e-cigarettes, which were only just being popularized at the time.

The survey is completely anonymous, and there is no way for ASAP or NHS officials to determine who is giving what responses, but Mynttinen is not confident that this message has been clearly communicated to students, and believes that they may not have been confident in answering honestly. Multiple students who spoke anonymously said that they lied on the survey, and claimed not to have used any drugs in the last 30 days, for fear that someone would see their data.

This belief leaves Myntinnen towards the centre of the spread of public opinion. School social worker Julie Kingston, who used to be in charge of a similar survey that sought to measure student drug use, feels that data is accurate, even the data collected last year. “I have to have confidence in the data,” she said, “we have to rely on people being as honest as they can.” 

Kingston agrees that it is worth going back to a paper survey, just to alleviate any concerns about the validity of the data, and admits that some students might feel concerned about people monitoring their school-issued Chromebooks, but she does not believe the data is flawed. “When you’re doing surveys, they look for ways to ensure that questions are being expressed in ways that are reliable and valid,” Kingston explained, going on to suggest that people who lie on the surveys can be identified and excluded from the results.

On the other hand, Myntinnen pointed out “there are kids who could very well put down that they don’t do anything and be perfectly honest. It would be hard to find a tell, statistically.” However, Myntinnen doesn’t go as far as some critics of the survey.

Documentary filmmaker and former NHS student Matt Giachetti is probably the most widely known youth voice when it comes to student drug use on Nantucket. In 2019, his film on the rise of vaping at NHS captured the attention of the Nantucket community, grabbing over 1,300 views on YouTube. Titled “Vaping at Nantucket High School,” the short film eventually garnered awards for its in-depth, cutting investigation of the reality of the vaping crises at NHS. His film, which came out soon after the 2019 survey was conducted, suggested a dramatically higher percent of NHS students used e-cigarettes than the official data claimed, and Giachetti has stuck by that, claiming that at the peak of the vaping epidemic in 2019, around half of NHS students were regularly vaping.

The e-cigarette question was only asked in the digital iteration of the survey, and Myntinnen did single it out as an issue of concern, surprised that the data shows less than a quarter of NHS students vaping. She “worried about the figures being lower than they really are,” and this question in particular played into her hesitance with the digital version of the survey.

Giachetti doesn’t have any faith in the official data, whether it was gathered through Chromebooks or on paper. “My numbers are higher simply because of bias in surveying and data collection,” he claimed. “Most kids are not honest, even in anonymous surveys, and officials underestimate the numbers.” 

Giachetti also estimated that around 75% of high school students probably use alcohol, much higher than reported figures would suggest. While Myntinnen conceded that “it’s hard to validate any of this data” she still holds the belief that the paper-based surveys are mostly correct.

Other students interviewed for this article gave a wide range of guesses on the percent of students who use alcohol, e-cigarettes and marijuana, but in general, their responses fell above reported figures, with most estimates for alcohol landing above 45%, and almost all estimates for marijuanna falling between 28 and 35%. This should not be considered a scientific poll, and should not be taken as meaningful statistical evidence, but it does show that student confidence in the reported data is not as high as ASAP and NHS might like it to be.

However, Myntinnen and Kingston argue that there is an explanation for the phenomenon of students believing the official numbers are artificially low. “Sometimes people have an expectation that a higher proportion of students are using than are actually using,” Kingston explained, citing the common theory that due to social pressures and selective reporting, students often end up believing their peers are more likely to engage in risky behaviour than they actually are. Someone having unprotected sex, for example, is much more likely to become a rumor than someone not having unprotected sex. The theory goes that this, along with the social pressures associated with drug use, lead to an overestimation of student drug use by other students. 

In fact, this is one reason why some people believe having accurate data is so important. While Kingston emphasized that any underage drug use should be taken seriously, she also felt that seeing the real data could alleviate some of the pressure students feel to do drugs, and reassure them that their choice to not do drugs doesn’t make them a minority. 

This isn’t the only use for the data. Myntinnen thinks that the data can mobilize people in the community to respond to student drug abuse, saying that “sometimes, unfortunately, you have to get people interested by telling them [student drug use] is more common than they think. Everyone thinks it’s one or two kids, and you have to tell them no, it’s more than that.” 

Because of this, Myntinnen believes that the exact numbers are less important than general ranges. “I don’t want to say accuracy doesn’t matter, because accuracy does matter,” she clarified, “but if we just go with the reported numbers, we know that they’re high and that there’s a lot more work to be done.”

In general, the concerns seem to be about underreporting, and not overreporting, so it is safe to assume that if the current statistics show worrying levels of student drug use, then student drug use is a concern—something Kingston, Myntinnen and Giachetti all agree on. Historically, Nantucket’s student drug use has been higher than national averages, with the statistics consistently showing that Nantucket has a higher percentage of students using many drugs than the country as a whole, despite the concerns of underreporting. This suggests that if there is underreporting on Nantucket, there is likely underreporting in much of the country, which would point to systemic flaws in student drug use data. 

Several students also pointed to COVID as potentially shifting patterns of student drug use. Those who did tended to suggest that COVID had lowered rates of student drug use, as many students primarily use at parties. Parties have still been happening regularly this year, including one that made state-level headlines for being a superspreader event last Summer, despite the pandemic, obvious and grave health risks, and the repeated urging of school and town officials. The rate of parties and the number of students attending them have both dropped, however, which reduces the social incentive to use drugs for many students.

Kingston thinks it would be “very interesting” to compare student drug use before and during the pandemic, concerned that increased mental health issues such as anxiety may counteract the effect of fewer parties. She was ambivalent on what trends she expected to see, saying that she would not be surprised by an increase or decrease as a result of the pandemic. Regardless, this data will likely never be known, as ASAP has opted to not to administer the survey this year. It is usually given on all odd-numbered years, but with many students remote and concerns about the accuracy of data acquired through school-issued devices, ASAP has decided to put off the survey.

Regardless, student drug use is something Myntinnen takes very seriously. “Particularly for teenagers, any kind of substance they use can cause permanent and life altering damage to their brain,” she said. “I would ask [students who are using drugs], what are you trying to feel? Is there any safer way you can feel that? And if you’re trying to escape something, can you do that in a way that won’t seriously harm your brain?”

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