The mask is off, and the nation’s top teens are not what they seem to be.
For parents who believe academic superstars are well-adjusted youths who never would consider suicide and are too smart to drink and drive, have unprotected sex or cheat on a test, the 28th-annual nationwide survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students should serve as a wake-up call.
“Clearly these are areas of concern,” said Who’s Who associate publisher Joe Krouse. “Parents are not in tune with their teens.”
The poll of 3,210 honor students nationwide, which was released Tuesday, found:
One-quarter of the students have considered suicide. More than three-quarters have cheated. Only half of those who are sexually active use condoms, and few of those who are sexually active see HIV and AIDS as a threat.
Marijuana use has more than doubled among this group since 1993.
Half of these students drink, and 10 percent have driven a car while drunk.
“When the good kids do this stuff, they do it on the DL (down low),” said Tiffany Balat, a high school junior with a 3.0 grade-point average. “They go out and do it, and then they come home and study. They let parents see what they want them to see.”
More than three-quarters, 77 percent, said alcohol is very common at parties, and 78 percent said it is easy to get. Other students interviewed for this story agreed.
“At house parties, it’s like drinking water,” said one Virginia Beach, Va., honor student who said she drinks most weekends. “People drink 40s (40-ounce beers), Icehouse and wine coolers.”
Getting it, she added, “is the easiest thing in the world.” They have an older friend buy it.
Marijuana use among academic standouts rose from 7 percent to 17 percent between 1993 and 1997. It is still lower than marijuana use among all teens, which stands at 42 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Only 2 percent of students surveyed said they used other drugs, such as cocaine, crack or heroin. That’s because “most smart students know that drug use can hurt you,” said Sunny Chen, a high school senior.
The poll also found 41 percent of high-achieving students never have discussed birth control with their parents, probably because 91 percent of their parents don’t think they are having sex.
On the contrary, 20 percent of these top teens have had sex, and the vast majority of those did so before age 17. Of those who do have sex, 50 percent don’t use condoms, 12 percent less than in 1992 when Magic Johnson announced he had the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
“Most people just worry about getting pregnant or getting a girl pregnant,” Balat said, a response in line with the poll’s findings - 42 percent listed pregnancy as their biggest sexual worry.
Academic cheating is another area that is not of great concern to this group. In the survey, 76 percent of the students said they had cheated. It didn’t seem like a big deal, most said.
Chen said she believes lots of students share information on homework assignments, the most common form of cheating, according to the poll. But students don’t consider that cheating, she said.
This in mind, it’s not so surprising that 35 percent of the students listed a “decline of moral and social values” as the biggest problem facing the nation.
“I see that all the time in my school,” said David Coleman, a high school junior. He said students cheat, do drugs and show disrespect to teachers. “They just don’t care anymore that their parents have taught them what is right. All they care about is being cool and what everyone else is doing.”
Like most of the students surveyed, David said his mother is the most influential person in his life, mostly because they constantly communicate.
Gwen Coleman, David’s mother, started discussing tough subjects when her children were young, including talking about child abuse when they were in day care. That has led, she believes, to open communication today.
“I don’t like hiding things,” she said.
Krouse said the survey indicates open communication is crucial to preventing risky behavior. Students who openly discussed with their parents issues such as sex and whose parents forbade those behaviors, were far less likely to try them.
“Some of the hardest things for a parent to do - wedge a family dinner into an impossible activity schedule, speak openly about a difficult topic - are precisely the things that make the greatest positive differences in children’s lives,” said “Who’s Who” publisher Paul Krouse. “If you doubt it … just ask your kids.”