• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Western Colorado University communication arts professor Jack Lucido works with North High School mass media students in the classroom of mass media teacher Susan Dunbar on November 4, 2019. The class is involved in a pilot program for concurrent enrollment with Western Colorado University. Andy Colwell, special to the Colorado Sun

Colorado high school students are stressed and kind of ambivalent about school, but also largely staying away from drugs and alcohol, according to a new survey from the Colorado Health Department.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey comes out every two years and is considered the gold standard in tracking the behaviors of youth in the state. The latest results, which were released earlier this week, come from questions asked in 2019 — so it doesn’t capture anything pandemic-related. The survey polled more than 100,000 students in 503 public schools, and was administered by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Here are some of the big takeaways:

Alcohol and marijuana use are not increasing

Following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado in 2012, the common concern was that pot use among kids was about to skyrocket. That hasn’t happened, according to the HKCS. There’s been no statistically significant change in how many kids are using marijuana since 2013, the survey’s first year. The figure now stands at around 21%.

How the teens who do use marijuana have consumed that cannabis has changed somewhat. While smoking is still the predominant method, more teens now are dabbing and vaping.

The data on marijuana use fits in with what the survey found in other areas. In general, Colorado high schoolers are not engaging in risk behaviors — drug use, drinking, sex — more often than they did in 2013. Here’s the trend for alcohol consumption, which shows that about 30% of Colorado high school students had at least one drink in the prior 30 days.

One thing that is interesting to note is that Colorado high schoolers generally view regular alcohol consumption as riskier than regular marijuana use, though the data isn’t exactly comparable since the survey asked the two questions a bit differently.

Vaping is common, but not as common as kids think

Vaping nicotine is another one of those risk behaviors that has remained relatively flat over the past several years, now standing at about 26%. But cigarette smoking has dropped to under 6%, the lowest level the survey has ever measured.

For these charts, we generally let the data visualization tool automatically pick the scale. But there’s an interesting insight when that chart above is put on a scale that goes all the way up to 100%.

While vaping is worryingly common among Colorado high school students — more common than marijuana use and almost as common as alcohol use — it’s not that common. The large majority of high school students don’t vape. The survey also found that more than half of students who do vape had tried to quit in the past year and that three-quarters of students think that vaping regularly carries at least a moderate risk of harm.

But Colorado high school students turn out to be really bad at estimating what their peers are doing. When asked whether they believe half or more of the students at their school vape, 64% of survey respondents said yes.

This trend repeats throughout the survey data. Lots of Colorado high school kids overestimate how many of their peers are drinking or using marijuana, as well. Academically, 63% of students statewide said they believe their grades are better than those of most other students in their classes.

Social media use is a major habit

So what are high school students doing a lot of? Staring at their phones.

In the survey, more than two-thirds said they check social media at least once an hour, and nearly a quarter said they hardly ever or never put their phone away while they are doing homework. All this social media use can come with consequences, too. Nearly a third said looking at social media sometimes or usually makes them feel worse.

The social media numbers hint at a growing unease among high school students that is seen in other parts of the survey data. Only 86% of students reported feeling safe at school, the lowest number of the survey has measured.

But, in one of the survey’s bright spots, it appears bullying isn’t to blame. Cyberbullying has dropped since 2013, as has bullying on school grounds. In the 2019 survey, about 13% of students reported being cyberbullied in the previous year and 17% reported being bullied on school grounds.

Mental health warning signs are flashing

In perhaps the survey’s bleakest section, there’s a lot of alarming data about the mental health of high school students.

More than a third said they had felt so sad or hopeless in the prior year that they stopped doing some things they would normally do. Nearly 18% had seriously thought about killing themselves, 13% had made a plan for how they would do that and nearly 8% had actually tried.

The good news is that nearly three-quarters of students said they had a trusted adult they could go to for help with a serious problem. More than 80% said they believe they can ask their parents for help with a personal problem, and 76% said they have chances to do fun things with their parents or guardians.

But school is a clear stress point. Fewer than 30% of students said they enjoy being in school, while more than 40% said they often hate school. Students are ambivalent about their work — while majorities think their classes are interesting and that the information they learn will be valuable later in life, only about a quarter of students find their assignments meaningful. And less than half of Colorado high school students think their teachers will praise them when they work hard.

The next Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is due to be performed in 2021, with results coming in mid-2022. That will provide the first chance to see how the coronavirus pandemic has changed any or all of these numbers.

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...