• The kids these days… might be smarter than we think

    I know it’s quite popular to bemoan the declining state of youth in America, but I’ve always felt that this country has a habit of acting curmudgeonly. Here’s some data:

    About 27 percent of American students drank alcohol during the 30 days prior to the survey. Only Iceland was lower at 17 percent, and the average rate in the 36 European countries was 57 percent, more than twice the rate in the U.S.

    The proportion of American students smoking cigarettes in the month prior to the survey was 12 percent—again the second lowest in the rankings and again only Iceland had a lower rate at 10 percent. For all European countries the average proportion smoking was 28 percent, more than twice the rate in the U.S.

    “One of the reasons that smoking and drinking rates among adolescents are so much lower here than in Europe is that both behaviors have been declining and have reached historically low levels in the U.S. over the 37-year life of the Monitoring the Future study,” Johnston said. “But even in the earlier years of the European surveys, drinking and smoking by American adolescents was quite low by comparison.

    Did you get that? Smoking rates and drinking rates in adolescents are at a 37-year historical low. Oh, the kids these days.

    Of course, people will still  find things to complain about:

    The U.S. students tend to have among the highest rates of use of all of the countries. At 18 percent, the U.S. ranks third of 37 countries on the proportion of students using marijuana or hashish in the prior 30 days. Only France and Monaco had higher rates at 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The average across all the European countries was 7 percent, or less than half the rate in the U.S.

    American students reported the highest level of marijuana availability of all the countries and the lowest proportion of students associating great risk with its use—factors that may help to explain their relatively high rates of use here, according to Johnston.

    Not to minimize anything, but… what great risk? Tobacco is known to impact lung function, causes a host of diseases, including lung cancer, and is perfectly legal. Alcohol is ubiquitous, dangerous, and costly to society. But marijuana has no impact on lung function, and has known beneficial effects. I’m not saying adolescents should all go out and light up a joint, but I’m not sure why we would ding adolescents for not “associating great risk with its use”.

    The news isn’t all all roses, though:

    The U.S. ranks first in the proportion of students using any illicit drug other than marijuana in their lifetime (16 percent compared to an average of 6 percent in Europe) and using hallucinogens like LSD in their lifetime (6 percent vs. 2 percent in Europe). It also ranks first in the proportion reporting ecstasy use in their lifetime (7 percent vs. 3 percent in Europe), despite a sharp drop in their ecstasy use over the previous decade. American students have the highest the proportion reporting lifetime use of amphetamines (9 percent), a rate that is three times the average in Europe (3 percent). Ecstasy was seen as more available in the U.S. than in any other country.

    For some drugs, however, the lifetime prevalence rate in the U.S. was just about the average for the European countries, including inhalants (10 percent), cocaine (3 percent), crack (2 percent), heroin (1 percent) and anabolic steroids (1 percent).

    I’d like some data on the health outcomes from this (sometimes one-time) “lifetime” use, as opposed to cigarettes or alcohol, which were measured differently. Even so, we want to work on getting these numbers down.

    But let’s face facts. There’s lots of reason to be pleased with our teens. The sky isn’t always falling.


    • Teens are also committing fewer crimes, and pregnancy rates are dropping.

      You wouldnt know it from all the school bashing, but dropout rates have been declining.


      If you actually spend time with teens, you will find that a lot of them are pretty motivated and they know they have to work hard to get into good schools and get good jobs. Summer internships or research are now the norm. Not so in my day. Calculus is pretty much required to get into a good school now. In my day, few schools offered it. I think you are correct that this is mostly just “we walked uphill both ways in the snow when we were kids” kind of stuff, except for the obesity. That is truly different.


    • I’ve long thought that the first sign of senility is to start complaining about youth.

    • Aaron

      I am all with you on not bashing teens. I would say though that the drugs that really make American teens stand out in the world are not in your post. Teen recreational use of oxycodone, hydrocodone et al., which as you know is quite risky, is larger by an order of magnitude in the US than in any other country.

    • I think you’re totally right to point to the encouraging declines in youth smoking and alcohol use. It’s worth bearing in mind that the marijuana available on the street today is, on average, double or even triple as potent as the marijuana available in the 1970s and 1980s. (See:

      So the assumption that marijuana is a benign drug, and will remain so for recreational users, requires a bit more scrutiny. I don’t think we know what impact higher dose marijuana will have on users, but in the short term it’s shown to be more impairing and leads to greater dependence.