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Survey: Fewer Lyme-Old Lyme students recognize drinking risk

Old Lyme — A group of Lyme-Old Lyme High School students had some tough love for parents as they talked about kids growing up too fast under the influence of the coronavirus pandemic, perfectionism and social media platforms.

The eight students, who were from the Youth Advisory Council and high school youth coalition, were at the middle school auditorium Tuesday night to put the results of the 2021 Lyme-Old Lyme youth survey into perspective. The results have been compiled every two years since 2006 to assess attitudes in sixth through 12th grades on alcohol, marijuana, vaping and mental health.

While the survey showed trends in drinking and drug use have gone down since 2019, so too has the number of students who recognize those behaviors as dangerous.

The project was spearheaded by Lyme-Old Lyme Prevention Coalition coordinator and social worker Alli Behnke. She described it as alarming that the number of students who think drinking every day is harmful went from 50.9% in 2019 to 27.7% two years later.

The students agreed the shadow of the pandemic — and its new normal — looms large over the results of the survey.

Alyssa Spooner was a first-year student at the high school when the doors shut on life as she knew it in March 2020. She said being confined to their homes for more than five months was tough for a lot of kids.

"We turned to our phone and social media, and that's where drinking and vaping and other substance abuse is much more normalized," she said. "I don't think people understand the amount of danger they can actually be in."

According to 592 anonymous survey responses filled out in December, 22.4% of students have tried alcohol at least once, compared to 26.1% in 2019. Of those, 51.7% have had five or more drinks at one time.

When it comes to marijuana, those who have tried it at least once start at approximately 5% for ninth grade students, 14% for tenth, 16% for eleventh and 19% for twelfth.

Senior MacLean Signora suggested numbers in the survey likely would have been higher if students weren't worried about whether the results were really anonymous. "Just how truthful can you be," she said. "You know what I mean?"

The students agreed the responses to questions about mental health were probably more accurate due to what they described as decreasing stigma surrounding the issue.

The survey said 70% of students reported feeling stressed, 60% felt anxious, 28% felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks, and 21% had suicidal thoughts.

The advice for parents revolved around open communication starting early enough to make a difference. That means before 14 years old, which is the average age that the kids in the survey reported having their first drink.

The survey showed 40% to 60% of students, depending on grade level, reported their families had clear rules discouraging alcohol use at home. Yet nearly 100% of parents in a community survey last fall said they'd established clear rules.

Behnke called it a discrepancy but said it's an easy one to fix from her perspective as a social worker. "Just go home and talk to your kids," she said.

She pointed to one of the biggest reasons identified by kids, not just in Lyme and Old Lyme but across the country, for abstaining from alcohol and drugs: they don't want to disappoint their parents. "And I just encourage you to use it," she said. "Kids, truly, they don't want to disappoint their parents. And that's a biggie."

Spooner said kids see parents as role models. "That's what we're going to absorb. That's what we're going to see as normal," she said. "So my advice is to present a normal that is good and healthy."

Behnke pointed to the statistical spike in the amount of adult drinking reported during the pandemic shutdown. She said that's the kind of things kids tell her they notice in their own homes.

The connection between kids' drinking habits and what they see their parents do is important to make, according to the social worker. "And it's really scary to make," she added.

The students cited social media as a threat to the self-confidence that kids need in order to follow through with their decision not to drink or take drugs when they see others doing it.

Senior Victoria Gage said social media platforms like SnapChat can promote a sense of FOMO — fear of missing out — when they can see exactly where their friends are and who they're with using the map function. "It definitely has an influence on how you feel as a person," she said. "Like, 'Oh, my friends are together and I'm not. Am I not good enough to be with them?'"

Signora said using apps like Instagram and TikTok make kids grow up too fast as they're bombarded with adult trends and behaviors they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to. Spooner pointed to posts on Instagram that portray unrealistic versions of what people should look like.

Senior Brendan O'Brien suggested parents refrain from introducing social media to kids at too early an age. "Once you give your kids social media, you really can't take it away," he said.

Spooner acknowledged an eighth grader who has never had social media may want to fit in with other students. She said limiting smartphone use to one app, like SnapChat or Instagram, could be a way to start.

"Don't shun them from it, because it's part of our world," she said. "But also don't give them the free end of the internet."

The other key piece of advice for parents was to encourage their children to do well in school and participate in sports and clubs — but not at the expense of their mental health.

Gage recalled a point when she was taking advanced classes, playing softball, changing clothes while driving to her job, and then getting home at 9:30 p.m. to start homework. She got to the point where she had to stop to ask herself what she was doing, she said: "That's why finding a balance in everything we do is really key to being successful."

Each student added their own perspective to the panel discussion that ended up being about how open communication between parents and their kids can go a long way toward fixing the problems outlined in the survey.

"A lot of us get told that it's high school, that you'll get over it eventually," Gage said. "But this is our life right now. And no matter how big or small it is, it is happening and it's hard and we have to acknowledge that it's hard."

Spooner reiterated it's about starting those conversations early on so kids have the confidence to compete in the rigorous academic environment and to stand up for their beliefs in social situations.

"Don't belittle your kids' feelings," she said. "It may be a small world that they're living in, but it is their whole, wide world."

e.regan@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that the survey results have been compiled every two years since 2006.

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