Study examines rural, urban youths’ substance use

Rural Issues


Posted March 28, 2016 | View original publication

A new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study shows that rural Nebraska youths are more likely to use alcohol than their urban peers, but that peer attitudes are not necessarily a driving factor in their behavior.

The study, by UNL sociologists Tara Warner and Courtney Thrash, examined how alcohol and marijuana use rates among Nebraska youths varied across geographic areas and if permissive peer attitudes within schools affected those rates.

The study found that alcohol use was more prevalent among rural students and that marijuana use is more likely in schools in mixed urban/rural areas. The researchers expected to find a link between alcohol use and student body attitudes in all population groups, and they did, but the study also found that a permissive climate among school peers was not to blame for the high base rate of alcohol use among the rural adolescents and teens.

“We see significantly higher risk of alcohol use among the most rural youth, but their attitudes toward substance use were not the most approving of all groups,” Warner said. “Even when accounting for permissiveness, we still see higher rates of alcohol use.”

The findings, researchers said, will allow further examination into whether pro-social opportunities and access to substances within different communities can better predict risk of substance use.

The study used data from the 2007 Nebraska Risk and Protective Factor Student Survey, in which 26,647 students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 from 287 Nebraska schools were asked about substance use, delinquency and other problem behaviors and their attitudes toward them. The research is unique in its examination across geographical contexts, rather than broad urban versus rural comparisons.

The researchers acknowledged the study had limitations – Omaha Public Schools and Lincoln Public Schools declined to participate – but the research nonetheless included several of the state’s largest schools and its findings capture a range of both rural and urban schools in the state.

“There are not much data on rural youth,” Thrash said. “It’s easier to find studies of urban youth, but there is so much variation in what is considered urban. By some definitions, Lincoln is considered urban, and so is New York City, but those are two very different contexts, two very different populations.”

To examine geographic variation, survey respondents’ schools were classified into one of five categories based on the populations of the counties where the schools were located: Medium urban schools were found in metropolitan counties with a population of 250,000 or more; small urban schools were located in metropolitan counties with 250,000 or less; mixed urban and rural schools were in non-metropolitan counties, but which had an urban center with a population of 20,000 to 49,999; the mostly rural category is made up of schools in counties that contain an urban center of a population of 2,500 to 19,999 residents; and completely rural areas are based in counties where there is no urban center and with a population of more than 2,500.

Marijuana use was more likely in medium and small urban schools, with 14 percent of students reporting some use in their lifetimes, compared with 13 percent and 9 percent in mostly rural and completely rural schools, respectively. Students in mixed urban/rural schools reported the highest rate, 15 percent.

Youth in the most isolated, rural areas of the state are the most likely to use alcohol. The study found 54 percent of completely rural youth reported alcohol use in their lifetimes, and that 28 percent had participated in binge drinking in the last two weeks. Their urban counterparts reported that 44 percent had engaged in alcohol use and 22 percent reported binge drinking in the last two weeks.

Thrash and Warner also examined permissive climates – the overall beliefs about substance use among all the students in each school.

“In schools where people have more permissive attitudes, adolescents were more likely to drink, but for those in completely rural areas, permissiveness didn’t matter as much,” Thrash said. “Rural schools just have higher rates of alcohol use, and we want to know why.”

The study has laid groundwork for Thrash and Warner’s current work, which examines the community aspects that may affect substance use, including access to substances, and pro-social opportunities like clubs, activities and sports.

“We’re hypothesizing that those pro-social activities will be linked with lower rates of substance use because there are other things for youth to do,” Thrash said.

The study, “The Geography of Normative Climates: An Application to Adolescent Substance Use,” was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.


More Research Stories