Minority teens' views of drug use differ from reality

December 07, 2004

Most young Black adolescents appear to believe that their Black peers use drugs more than White or Hispanic teens, when in reality studies show that fewer Black youth use alcohol or other drugs than do youth of other ethnic groups, a Penn State researcher says.

"Of all Blacks surveyed in our study, almost two out of three perceived that Black adolescents take more drugs than White or Hispanic young people," says Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, associate professor of communication arts and sciences. Of the Black teens who reported using alcohol or other drugs, 100 percent believed that Black adolescents used more drugs than Whites and Hispanics in the same age group.

According to Miller-Day's own data, only 16 percent of the Black youth queried, admitted using drugs within the past few months, compared to 24 percent of the White youth surveyed. This discovery corroborated earlier and quite extensive findings by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse that revealed that that the overall White population in the United States exceeded the Black population in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and inhalants.

Interestingly, in Miller-Day's study, it is the Black students' sense of ethnic identity as "Being Blacks" that provides an important incentive in causing them to stay off alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

Her findings showed that young White adolescents overwhelmingly believe that White youth use fewer drugs than other ethnic groups. "However -- in contrast to Black adolescents - few of the White youth perceived ethnic identity as important to their sense of self," says the Penn State researcher.

Miller-Day and Dr. Jacqueline M. Barnett of Bloomsburg University published their findings in the article, " 'I'm Not a Druggie': Adolescents' Ethnicity and (Erroneous) Beliefs About Drug Use Norms," which appeared recently in the journal Health Communication. The researchers took their sample of 67 volunteer participants (42 Black, 25 White) from two inner-city schools, two inner-city churches and two inner-city community centers within a 10-mile radius of one another in the mid-South. The interviews, lasting from 30 to 60 minutes, measured the adolescents' feelings about their own ethnicity and compared those with their attitudes and propensity toward taking drugs and their perceptions of drug use among peers.

Unlike most Black young people, few Whites looked at ethnic identity as a significant element in their developing sense of self, Miller-Day notes. However, White youth who perceived ethnic identity as central to self-identity also tended to be those who reported using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

"The most interesting difference that emerged in the stories of the Black respondents was that Blacks believed that 'Blacks do more drugs than other races.' Whites, on the other hand, did not view drug use as the norm among other Whites. When asked if peers of their own race used more, less, or about the same amount of drugs as other races, 64 percent of all Black youth in our survey reported peers of their race used more. This may be compared with the 12 percent of the White youth who reported that their race used more drugs," Miller-Day says.

"Among the Black youth in our study who did not report drug use, it was precisely their strong personal identity as a nonuser - along with a belief that their ethnicity is important -- that motivated them to assert a positive drug-free identity as characteristic of Blacks. In so doing, they would contradict the popular notion that Blacks are more inclined to be 'druggies.' For these Black young people, their conscious decision not to use drugs served to shape their sense of self-identity," says Miller-Day.

For some less fortunate Black youth, the perception that Blacks use more drugs may facilitate their very use of drugs, thus resulting in a self-fulfilled prophecy, she adds.
-end-


Penn State

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