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September 1999

Cover Story

Smoking, Drunkenness and Drug Use Up
Among High School Students

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Health Canada study links negative attitudes about school to a wide array of health-risk behaviour. Professionally Speaking brings you the first look at this wide-ranging student survey.

By Rosemarie Bahr

"There are lots of good things about schools. Our schools stand up pretty well. Relationships with our teachers stand up pretty well," says Alan King. The professor, educator and researcher is discussing the results of an extensive new survey done of
Grade 6, 8 and 10 students across Canada.

"However, there is a core of kids that we don’t seem to be reaching very well, and it’s substantial. Their feelings about life and school are fairly negative and result in some behaviours that are harmful to them and harmful to society in general."

Trends in the Health of Canadian Youth identifies emerging and continuing problems: a large number of students skip classes; smoking and drug use are going up; bullying is common; and a small, but significant, number of students do not feel safe at school.

The study by Alan King, William Boyce and Matthew King will be published by Health Canada this month, and is part of a World Health Organization cross-national study, so it includes comparisons with other countries. The most recent round of research was done in 1998 and the study compares these findings with data from 1990 and 1994.

The research found that students who are unhappy at school because of lower-than-expected achievement, adjustment problems and poor relationships with teachers and other students tend to disengage from school. Their friends usually have similar feelings and together they take part in health-risk behaviours, such as skipping classes, smoking, drinking and using drugs.

"There is a pretty dramatic increase in marijuana use in 15-year-old kids," says Alan King. He is professor emeritus in the Social Program Evaluation Group at Queen’s faculty of education and a member of the Ontario government committee on restructuring of secondary education.

It’s tobacco use that really caught his attention. "I am amazed at the number of girls who smoke daily. Taking our Grade 10 sample,
23 per cent of the girls are daily smokers. These are kids who feel disengaged, alienated. They feel out of the mainstream, as if doors are being closed. They create their own little subgroups. Sometimes they make them extreme and they wear black and put piercings all over their body. Sometimes they are less extreme, they just sit around with others and smoke and have parties.

"The fact is, they choose to do these things. What could possibly make a kid smoke with all we know about the implications of smoking? It has to be some real dissatisfaction with the way he or she has been treated."

The survey did find that well over half of Canadian students are relatively satisfied with school, although that satisfaction goes down as they move to higher grades. Students in these grades said teachers seemed to be less interested in them as a person.

The report’s authors concluded that, as teachers become more concerned with specific subjects and teach more students per day, as happens in secondary school, teachers are less able to provide the time and attention students feel they need.

At apparent odds with this response is that the vast majority of students, in all grades, said they could get extra help from their teachers when they needed it.

The survey found that positive attitudes toward school were linked to good relationships with parents and the avoidance of smoking, drinking and using drugs.

The 1998 survey showed that 23 per cent of Grade 10 girls smoked every day. Two-thirds of the girls in this grade, and 61 per cent of the boys, had smoked at least one cigarette.

Once the health risks of smoking were generally known in the 1970s, rates of smoking declined to a low point in 1990. Despite all the advertising and anti-smoking programs, adolescent smoking rates have been rising since then.

Students who engage in one risk behaviour are more likely to partake in others. Of the Grade 10 daily smokers, 90 per cent had also used marijuana.

Not surprisingly, since alcohol is used in most Canadian homes, the survey found that by Grade 10 more than 90 per cent had tried it. The survey also found that the number of students drinking alcohol weekly has been declining. For example, in 1990, 30 per cent of Grade 10 boys were drinking beer at least once a week. By 1998 it was 18 per cent. The comparable figures for boys in Grade 6 were seven and two.

However, in 1998, 43 per cent of boys and girls in Grade 10 had been "really drunk" at least twice. As the authors note, this indicates a potentially serious problem. These young people, under the legal age for drinking, tend to be beginning drivers. Alcohol abuse also has implications for unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and injuries.

The use of beer may have been lower because more young people are using marijuana. The survey found a sharp rise in hashish and marijuana use from 1994 to 1998.

In 1998, 44 per cent of boys and 41 per cent of girls in Grade 10 had used marijuana three or more times, up from 30 per cent and 27 per cent in 1994.

Solvent use is up slightly for Grade 8 students and for Grade 10 boys. The use of cocaine, amphetamine and LSD is also increasing.

The survey found surprisingly large numbers of students skipping classes, girls as well as boys, and even in the lower grades.

The survey creators added the question on skipping classes to the 1998 survey, assuming that skipping provides opportunities for friends to meet in settings that facilitate cigarette, drug and alcohol use.

In Grade 6, 29 per cent of boys had skipped, 11 per cent for three or more days and 18 per cent for one or two days. Of the Grade 6 girls, 17 per cent had skipped one or two days and eight per cent three or more. By Grade 10, 21 per cent of boys had skipped one or two days and 22 per cent three or more. Twenty-four per cent of the girls had skipped one or two days and 20 per cent had skipped at least three.

The survey found that the more students skip school, the greater the likelihood their friends are smokers or alcohol and drug users and the greater the likelihood that they have smoked or used drugs or alcohol. Skippers were also more likely to be having difficulty getting along with their parents and at school.

In other words, skipping appears to be an indicator of alienation and disengagement.

Another first-time question for the 1998 survey was on safety. Eleven per cent of Grade 6 boys did not feel safe at school. Ten per cent of Grade 9 boys said their friends carry weapons. Most say this is done for protection.

Although the numbers are small, they are significant.

Questions about bullying were asked in 1994 and 1998, showing an increase in 1998. Boys are more likely to be both the victims and the bullies, although by Grade 10 girls are almost as likely to be victims.

The survey found that bullying remains a serious problem. Victims are more likely to feel unaccepted at school, to be lonely, unhappy and have lower self-esteem. They are also more likely to be bullies.

Bullies tend to be a little older than their peers and to have had trouble with school. They are also more likely to smoke, drink or use drugs and they tend to have been bullied themselves.

The survey points out that social integration – having friends – cuts two ways. It found that social integration is a fundamental component of good health and happiness. The students who scored high on the scale are less likely to feel depressed, helpless or be vulnerable to bullying. They are more likely to have high self-esteem and enjoy school.

The survey also found that some friends spend a great deal of time together in the evenings. A third of the 13-year-old boys spend five or more evenings a week with friends.

These students tend to be well-integrated socially. They also tend to have friends who drink, smoke and use drugs and to smoke, drink, use drugs and skip classes themselves. They also tend to feel negative about school and bully others.

About a quarter spend five or more evenings a week with friends, up slightly from 1994. Much of this time is unsupervised. It is during this time, the report says, that "health-risk behaviours tend to occur." It is while kids are "hanging around" with their friends that they are likely to smoke, drink or take drugs.

"You can see from the data that kids are not with their parents a great deal of the time," says King. "In fact, they are really out with friends unattended at a very early age, a remarkably high number. Our kids receive less parent time and are slightly less likely to have open relationships with their parents than in other countries."

The survey also noted that relatively few students engage in health-risk behaviours when they are not associated with a group of health-risk takers.

"One of the big things we see in our research," says King, "is that kids have different status in schools. Some have more, some have less. Those that have less are more likely to engage in health-risk behaviour. So there is a social system that the school reflects, sometimes more overtly than the adult system. There is more pay-off if you go to university and graduate in medicine or law than there is if you leave school and work at the local mall."

King and his co-authors conclude that most of the programs aimed at stopping bullying, smoking, drinking or using drugs have had little success. They say that an integrated, systematic approach that includes the home, school, peer group and community is required.

The report suggests that schools encourage the use of teaching and learning methods that enable social interaction and skill development. A wide and varied extracurricular program that responds to the interests of students, stable homeroom groupings and mentoring programs could combat the social isolation that many secondary students feel. The authors also suggest that parents can provide opportunities at home that include friends in activities that are fun and promote health.

King emphasizes the point that schools should provide for "an acceptance for all kids. We should make sure there is a range of, not only programs, but extra-curricular programs designed to meet the needs of all kids."

He continues, "A lot of it’s an attitude that the school has to develop, especially the secondary school. It is a role of sorting and differentiating kids into different career paths and it has to be a very sensitive, thoughtful process. The expectation that all kids will go on to university is not only not realistic, it is harmful. The kinds of changes I would like would be more support provided from both the teachers and counsellors and more involvement of parents."

To see the whole Trends in the Health of Canadian Youth, visit .