Oct. 25, 2010 -- A new study may confirm what many already suspect: teens don't always tell the truth about their use of illegal drugs.
Researchers from Wayne State University and the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that when asked about their use of cocaine and opiates, teens often fudged their answers -- even though they knew they were being subjected to hair analyses that would prove they did use those drugs.
"The basic finding is that when teens were asked about their use of cocaine and opiates, they gave socially acceptable answers rather than being completely forthright," said Dr. Virginia Delaney-Black, a study co-author and professor of pediatrics at Wayne State in Detroit.
While other studies have identified similar behavior in adults, few have looked at the phenomenon in teenagers. Adolescent health experts say it has implications for teaching health care providers how to better assess teen drug use. They also say the behavior of the teens in the study is consistent with that of most of their peers.
The researchers surveyed more than 400 teens and parents or caregivers and asked whether they used a variety of drugs, including cocaine, opiates and marijuana. They later did hair analyses on them and compared the results of those tests with their survey answers. Teens and parents did not generally answer questions honestly about teens' drug use, and parents also did not answer truthfully about their own drug use. They were unable to accurately analyze marijuana use because the hair tests were not sensitive enough.
"All the data we have about teen use of drugs, except when [they've faced legal action] or when they're in drug treatment, comes from self-report," said Delaney-Black. "We need to rethink what we're doing from the perspective of pediatrics, and when there's need to know about drug use, and should consider biologic measures."
Despite Limitations, Study Results Reflect Similar Behaviors in Almost All Teenagers
The authors acknowledge that the study participants, who were all African-American, are not representative of the general population. Because they were from low-income families and the inner city, which could have had an impact on their drug use, the results may not be consistent in other groups of drug users.
Dr. Jon Krosnick, a professor of of humanities and social sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., added that because study participants were asked about drug use up to a year before the survey and gave hair samples up to three months after it, there could be inaccuracies.
"That's a long time. A person's substance use can easily change during that period," said Krosnick.
Krosnick also said that while anonymous surveys can increase the reporting of socially unacceptable behavior, those same reports may be inaccurate because survey takers don't have to be accountable for their answers and may not have any motivation to tell the truth.
Despite those limitations, experts say the study results aren't surprising. Both teens and drug users in general tend to cover up their drug habits -- and among teens, lying isn't reserved just for their drug use. Experts say they lie about many things for many different reasons.
Teens Find it Hard to Admit Drug Use
One of the main reasons teenagers don't always come clean about their drug use is because they don't want to get caught.
"They don't want to pay whatever those consequences would be," said Stacie Allphin, director of adolescent programs at Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center in Houston.
She said that teenagers may also be dishonest about their drug use because of suspicion that their parents or authorities will find out.
"With cocaine especially, there's a lot of stigma around that, especially if the cocaine type is crack cocaine. People don't want to be associated as crack addicts, so kids would tend to underreport [using cocaine]."
The study found that teens reported they used marijuana more frequently than their hair samples showed. The researchers say that's likely because the biological testing wasn't sensitive enough. Other experts say it could be due to an entirely different reason.
"It also may be a common belief that marijuana is not as serious a drug, and there's a wider social acceptability of it," said Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal.
But drug use is just one thing teens often lie about.
"The most common thing is something they've done that they think their parents will be upset about," said Talwar. "That can be a range of things."
She said that's because they don't want their parents to see them as bad kids, and they don't want to deal with lectures or other negative consequences that may result from getting caught doing something they shouldn't be doing.
For most young people, lying is just part of growing up.
"Teenagers often tell lies to exert some control over their lives and self-identify," said Talwar. "They're trying to assert their identities and use strategies to do that."
Although the study focused on urban, African-American teens, Talwar said that sex, race, socioeconomic status and other factors have no bearing on lying.
"Lying is part of human nature, and people lie for universal reasons, regardless of population."
Regardless of why teens may not be truthful about their drug use, experts say it's important to realize that it could be more common than studies suggest.
Said Allphin: "When they come into treatment, they may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms that need to have medical attention. The problem with underreporting there is, it's life-threatening."