Woog's World / Poring over the half-empty, half-full debate
You can see the glass as half empty or half full.
Which glass? The one teenagers drink from.
Earlier this month, details of the Governor's Prevention Initiative for Youth survey were released. Over 1,000 Westport students in grades seven through 11 took the online questionnaire last April -- approximately half of the combined populations of Staples High School and Bedford and Coleytown Middle Schools.
The half-empty folks jumped all over the illicit behavior numbers. Almost 40 percent of 10th graders said they'd used alcohol in the 30 days prior to last spring's survey. That number rose to approximately 60 percent of 11th graders.
There were "high rates" of cheating and bullying too, news media reported.
Predictably, that caused much eyebrow-raising, hand-wringing, and what-is-the-world-coming-too lamenting.
But now let's hear the half-full side.
The survey compared the 2011 results with a similar survey, done in 2000. Taken together, the two surveys show that alcohol use among ninth and 10th graders in the previous 30 days is down "substantially" (the report's own words) -- from 57 percent in 2000, to 31 percent this year.
Marijuana use shows a similar "substantial" decline in that period -- from 27 percent to 12 percent. That number, the report says, is close to national and state averages.
Cigarette smoking is down "dramatically" -- approximately tenfold -- in 11 years.
And cocaine, heroin and angel dust are "almost unknown" in Westport.
Bullying seems high. About 40 percent of 10th and 11th graders said the statement "in my school, kids are often bullied" was "mostly" or "definitely" true. The survey did not, however, ask whether those students themselves were bullied (or were bullies). It's an odd formulation to the question, as other survey questions asked about the respondents' own behavior.
Nor does this confirm other surveys done at Staples, showing high rates of students who say they feel safe, secure and comfortable in school.
Dig a bit deeper into the Positive Directions survey, and some interesting findings emerge. Alcohol -- described as "the most commonly used substance" -- is rated "very easy" to obtain by more Westport youths in 2011 than in 2000.
"Direct purchase" of alcohol is down, though. So where do they get it?
From friends and at parties, the survey said.
There's another means too, according to Inklings, the Staples newspaper. A recent front page story described the trend of parents partying with their own kids and their youngsters' friends.
That would seem like an ideal situation for a teenager, right?
Wrong. Students quoted in the story called it "awkward" and "uncomfortable."
The Positive Directions survey cited the most common "antisocial" acts: cheating on a test within the past year. The percentage of students who admit to this rises from 18.5 percent in grade seven to 49.5 percent in grade 11. This tracks with national surveys, which call cheating endemic.
Other "antisocial" acts that high school juniors cop to within the previous year include stealing something worth less than $100 (28 percent); buying illegal drugs (28 percent), riding as a passenger with a driver who is using drugs (29.5 percent), and riding as a passenger with a driver using alcohol (20 percent).
It should be noted that while it is probable those drug-using drivers were not adults, some percentage of teenagers might have ridden with a parent who drives after drinking.
Among the least popular "antisocial" behaviors among Westport 11th graders: attacking someone to seriously hurt them (8 percent); bullying to hurt someone's feelings (8 percent), and purposely damaging another person's property (4 percent -- down from around 10 percent in grades eight and nine).
Sifting through all the data -- and there are pages and pages of it -- I have a couple of thoughts.
One: It is hard being a teenager today. There are pressures everywhere: academic, social, even pressure to look perfect. I know, I know: Those pressures are not new, particularly in a town like Westport. I grew up here. I felt those pressures, too. However, I think they are more intense and ferocious than ever -- from parents, peers and society at large. The stakes are higher than ever too.
What I've heard anecdotally though, at Staples, is that there is less pressure than we imagine on those who do not drink, do drugs or engage in other illegal behaviors. Students who say "I don't drink" or "no thanks" are not shunned. Choices are accepted; values are honored.
Another thought: Teenagers are bombarded with mixed messages, from the abstract "media" to their very real parents. Whether it's drinking and driving, "cheating" on income or sales tax or whatever, our actions sometimes speak far louder than words.
The third thought is this: Sometimes the glass is neither half full nor half empty.
Sometimes it is both.