- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

Do you have a 13-year-old or 14-year-old at home? Here’s some pleasant news to ponder as they head back to school.

Record numbers of American eighth-graders are staying away from smoking, drinking and illicit drugs and doing better in school.

“Say WHAT?” as Hannah Montana would put it.

According to the 2007 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, 22 percent of eighth-graders have smoked a cigarette, 7 percent say they have smoked a cigarette in the last 30 days and 3 percent say they currently smoke a cigarette every day.

Sure, all these numbers ought to be big fat zeros, but the not-bad news here is that these are record lows for eighth-graders, since 1991 when MTF started tracking this age group.

If these youth maintain this smoking-resistant attitude for the rest of their teen years, “we could see a dramatic drop in smoking-related deaths in their generation,” Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) said in December when the latest MTF was released.

Eighth-graders also are heading in the right direction with illegal drugs and alcohol, says the MTF, which is sponsored by NIDA and conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

In 2007, just 19 percent of eighth-graders say they have used an illicit drug. (It drops to 11 percent if marijuana use isn’t counted). As for drinking, about 39 percent of eighth-graders say they have had an alcoholic drink, and 18 percent say they have “been drunk.”

Parental units, please note. These 2007 numbers are also the lowest since 1991.

Not only that, there’s good news from the education front.

The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade math scores were the highest they have been in any NAEP assessment, the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics said in its July report, “America’s Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2008.”

NAEP reading scores for eighth-graders also were up slightly from 2005.

What’s going on here? Why all this clean and sober living and learning in middle school?

Some of it is due to a decade’s worth of public health messaging to “drive down the rates of smoking, illicit drugs and alcohol use among teens,” Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, told the MTF press conference in December.

Other reasons may be that young teens have less access to illegal substances or they are getting stronger anti-drug, pro-education messages from people they care about.

Or maybe the kids are just deciding they have seen enough drama from these substances.

“I think it goes without saying that our society has low expectations for teens when it comes to smoking, drinking and drugs,” says Alex Harris, 19, who has written a book with his twin brother Brett, called “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations.”

“Those things are almost considered normal. We’re supposed to push boundaries,” Alex Harris wrote to me recently in an e-mail. The teen years are viewed as “a grand experiment,” he said, “and as long as we don’t hurt someone or royally screw up our lives, we’re a success.”

“I think a new generation is fed up with that mind-set, and you see it most clearly among those who are just entering their teen years,” he said. “They’re looking ahead at older teens and they’re saying, ‘There’s got to be more. That’s not what I want.’ And we’re seeing clear downward trend in both use and approval for these [illegal] activities. More and more teens are saying no, for themselves and their friends. That’s exciting.”

The Harris brothers, both home-schooled Christians, have just finished a seven-city speaking tour, attracting thousands of teens at each stop, including at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg in July.

Their message for teens is to “do hard things.” This means going outside one’s “comfort zone,” going beyond what’s expected or required, working with others to do things that are too big to do alone, striving for goals that won’t have an immediate payoff, and, when necessary, taking a stand and challenging the cultural norms.

Cheryl Wetzstein’s On the Family column runs Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@

washingtontimes.com.