Research Methods

Much of the most useful data for studies of adolescent drug use are collected either by self-administered questionnaires or during interviews. Often the questionnaires are given out in classrooms for students to complete anonymously. This type of study, which obtains data from all respondents at the same time, is known as a cross-sectional survey, and it provides important clues about how the use of different substances relates to such factors as age, gender, and ethnicity. In the drug-sequencing studies, researchers collect information as to whether a substance was used and the age of the person at the time of first use. Then, using a statistical technique called Guttman scaling, they combine each drug category and the ages of first use for the entire sample to establish a predominant sequence of use, by age, for the different substances.

Longitudinal cohort study is the term used for the study design whereby researchers test the progression of drug users to stronger substances. In these studies, people are interviewed or given a questionnaire to fill out repeatedly over time. For example, the same youths may be contacted annually to provide information on their drug use during the year. Although this method may help establish the correct timing and order of drug-use initiation for any given individual, it is a very difficult approach because of the cost and time involved in tracking people for many years.

Since illegal drug use has an antisocial connotation, people may underreport their use, although some teenagers may exaggerate reports of their drug use to create an impression. The biggest hurdle in studying drug use is obtaining accurate information. Reports are assumed to be honest and correct, based on the respondents' memory. Researchers try to promote honesty and accuracy by providing memory aids (e.g., pictures of drugs) as well as by assurances of anonymity and confidentiality.

Another concern of researchers is that reports of drug use will be affected by the way the population is sampled or by those participating. For example, a survey conducted in an inner-city public school may not reflect all adolescents. High school dropouts who are not in class when the data are collected and students enrolled in private schools may have levels of drug use that are different from those of students attending public schools.

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