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Teens Lie About Drug Abuse

Even a Looming Drug Test Can’t Get Some Teens, Parents to Admit Cocaine, Opioid Use, Study Finds
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 25, 2010 -- Teens substantially underreport their use of cocaine and other illicit drugs, even when they know a drug test looms, a new study finds.

The findings, which appear in the November issue of Pediatrics, call attention to the need for more reliable methods than self-report when it comes to estimating drug use among teens and evaluating teens who show signs of drug abuse.

Teens were 52% more likely to test positive for cocaine use than to report its use on confidential questionnaires, the study showed.

"It’s a matter of human nature," says study author Virginia Delaney-Black, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University in Detroit. "We don't like telling people things they don’t want to hear, might be socially unacceptable, or may make people think differently about us," she says.

Researchers asked more than 400 high-risk urban teens and their parents about drug use in a questionnaire, and then tested the teens’ hair samples for traces of cocaine, opiate, or marijuana use.

The discrepancy seen among teens was also seen among their parents, the study showed. Parents were 6.5 times more likely to test positive for cocaine use, and 5.5 times more likely to test positive for opiates, than they were to own up to using these drugs.

Teens and their parents downplayed their drug use even though the questionnaires were confidential, and they knew a drug test was part of the study protocol.

If Teen Drug Use Is Suspected, Testing May Be the Answer

"If a pediatrician feels that they need to know this information because there are symptoms or signs of drug use, they can't rely on what the teen tells them," she says. "I am not advocating that parents get children drug tested or all pediatricians test their patients, but if you need a reliable response, this is the way to get it."

The hair test for marijuana is not as reliable as it is for cocaine and opiates, she says. Still, it is possible that teens may be more likely to lie about their use of hard drugs as opposed to marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco.

"Hard drugs are less socially acceptable and the legal penalties are also different," she says.

Preventing Teen Drug Abuse

"This study is really interesting," says Sean Clarkin, executive vice president and director of strategy and program management at the Partnership at, a nonprofit group based in New York City that helps parents prevent, intervene in, and find treatment for drug and alcohol problems in their children.

But the findings may not be generalizable to other teen populations, he says. "In a broad national representative sample, the degree of under-reporting would likely diminish," he tells WebMD.

"The findings give us pause," he says. "We should wonder if there is a higher level of abuse when looking at cocaine and opioid use among teens."

Parents can play an important role in preventing teen drug use. "Talk to your kids about the risks of drugs to prevent them from getting involved, and when you find out that your kids are using, take action right away," he says. "Don't wait around."

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