Researchers at the Annenberg School of Communications’ Adolescent Risk Communication Institute have found that marijuana and tobacco use decreases in a positive academic environment. However, their study shows that environment has no effect on alcohol use.
Dan Romer, director of the institute and co-author of the study, conducted an experiment with adolescents who the institute has been following since the age of 10 and traced drug usage throughout their high school years. Ultimately Romer, along with his colleague Sharon Sznitman, found that nothing in relation to the academic environment can control the rise in alcohol use starting at the age of 18.
The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Romer to talk to him about his research.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What do you think explains why alcohol use shows such a different trend than marijuana or tobacco use?
Dan Romer: When someone reaches age 18, the drinking rate goes up quite a bit. Part of it is because kids go away to college and parents don’t watch them anymore. Despite the fact that you’re not supposed to be able to buy alcohol until you’re 21, it doesn’t stop young people from getting alcohol and drinking. We actually have the point of view that the under-21 law may not really be all that helpful. It sort of forces young people to drink in private places more than they need to because they know when they go out they won’t be able to drink.
DP: So, you think the under-21 law is essentially ineffective?
DR: One of the reasons it was put into effect was because of driving, but most of the alcohol-related accidents happen with older people. In terms of portion of accidents due to alcohol it’s much higher in over-21-year-olds.
DP: How does your study, which focuses on high school students, relate to college students here at Penn?
DR: Drinking in college is a huge problem and this is true at Penn as well as at a lot of other schools. They’re all trying to figure out programs to curtail the problem of drinking too much and getting sick. At Haverford [College] they have an honor system for drinking. There really is no prohibition against drinking, they just have a rule that if you see someone drinking, you watch out for them and make sure they’re okay. From what I’m told, they have a much lower rate of problems, so maybe something like that would work.
DP: So you think Penn should adopt a similar system to the one at Haverford?
DR: Yes, so that people would do what they need to do and not feel as though they’re going to get arrested. We need to create a culture where people feel responsible for each other and that would make it better than having it be illegal.
DP: What specifically do you ask high schoolers in your study?
DR: We asked them, “Have you tried [marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol], and if so, how much do you use them?” For alcohol, we asked if using it included bingeing. Then we asked them about their school — does their school ask them to take drug tests, etc.
DP: And how does academic climate relate to usage?
DR: There is big variation about how high schools treat their students. Some are authoritarian and don’t care what you think about the rules as long as you follow them. Others are much more respectful — teachers and administrators have respect for their students. We measure a “good climate” based on whether students respect each other, students respect teachers, are the rules clear and so on. If they’re in a good climate, they’re less likely to use marijuana and smoke cigarettes, and over the course of the year are less likely to to continue smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
DP: What do you think the solution for adolescent alcohol usage should be?
DR: Alcohol has become so normative now amongst young people that it really doesn’t matter what people think, it’s just the natural thing to do. [Penn] should encourage students to drink responsibly. It’s very difficult to tell people “You can’t drink,” given the marketing and given what we find with high school kids even in places where they respect the teachers. Ultimately you can’t stop them because they are going to drink. [Penn] should follow Haverford and have students watch out for each other.