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This spring, the Evanston Substance Abuse Prevention Council (ESAPC) and Evanston Township High School administered the annual “Drug Perceptions and Use Survey” to ETHS students, staff and parents.

The survey collects information on student and parental attitudes toward youth cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use, and examines how often ETHS staff and parents talk to youth about the risks of substance use. The survey’s primary focus, however, is the perceptions of students, staff members and parents about how
often ETHS students use cigarettes,
alcohol, and other drugs.

Do Misperceptions About Youth Substance Use Matter?

Research has found that peer norms are a powerful predictor of behavior among high school youth. It is not difficult for adults to recall trying to fit in with peers or to remember paying attention to who played football, bought lunch at school, had sex or smoked cigarettes. At one time or another most teenagers look to peers for some kind of direction about how to fit in or be more like those who are admired.

When youth want to conform to the norms of their peer group, what they think – even just what they perceive – their peers are doing is an important factor in the decisions they make about their own behavior, such as whether or not to have sex or try a cigarette. 

The table above illustrates the disparity in Evanston Township High School students’ perceptions of their peers’ behavior and actuality. 

The statistics used in the table represent two things: 30-day non-use and 30-day perceptions of non-use. For example, the table shows that 88 percent of ETHS students did not smoke cigarettes in the 30-day period prior to the survey. Yet in the survey, students said they perceived that 72 percent do smoke cigarettes at least once a month.

Utilization of Data

The ESAPC runs a social norms campaign to help educate youth, parents and ETHS staff about the non-use rates of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other substances among ETHS students. Its purpose is similar to those of the high-profile anti-littering social norms campaign publicized with the motto, “Don’t Be a Litterbug,” and the “The Truth” anti-tobacco-use campaign. The goal is to educate youth and those who primarily support their development – parents and school staff – about rates of use of these substances in the community.  Research has shown that when misperceptions about drug use are corrected, there is a decrease in the number of youth who start to use them.

We Are Often Asked, “Don’t Kids Lie on the Survey?”

The answer is that some kids do. But ESPAC takes many steps to make sure the data we are using is valid. Completed surveys are sent to Northern Illinois University, where a researcher analyzes the data. 

The student survey data is “cleaned”; that is, invalid surveys are eliminated before the statistics are finalized. Inconsistent responses, patterned responses, invalid individual information (such as a student who claims to be in seventh grade) are some of the reasons that surveys are eliminated. Another reason for elimination is a student’s own response that he or she was not honest on the survey.  In 2009, “cleaning” the data resulted in the elimination of 6 percent of all student surveys. The data used is based on the results of 2,264 valid student surveys.

More student survey results and results from the parent and staff survey will be presented in the June Prevention Matters article.

Anyone with questions or who would like more information may contact Megan DeCarlo at esapc.coordinator@gmail.com or 847-492-1778.


is a series by the Evanston Substance Abuse Prevention Council (ESAPC) to help raise public awareness of the
issues involved in preventing alcohol and other drug use. If you would like more information about substance abuse prevention or the innovative programs in Evanston, contact Claire Bechard at 847-492-1778.