Do students tell the truth on surveys? | YFS Advice

Dear Cindy,

Dear Cindy,

We had a family discussion the other night where I told my kids that reportedly most students at Mercer Island High School do not drink alcohol or do drugs based on the results I had seen presented by Communities that Care. Their argument back to me was that the student self-report used to determine the findings was inaccurate because “students don’t tell the truth.” I responded that I believed statistically that the survey holds weight, even if some students do not answer honestly. Can you enlighten us on this matter?

Mum of two teens

Hi Mum,

I am really glad to hear your family is discussing this topic. We get this question a lot.

To answer your question, I spoke with the Communities That Care (CTC) Coalition Project Director Derek Franklin, who coordinates data related to alcohol and marijuana.

We often hear “but most kids lie on surveys” when the survey results do not seem to match a youth’s experience. For many youth, most of their friends might in fact use substances. However, this perception is different than the fact that most kids in a class or in the entire school do not use. Could most of one youth’s friends drink alcohol? Yes. Do most 10th graders at MIHS drink alcohol? No.

Of interest, youth respondents typically exaggerate the number of their peers who use substances and engage in other risky behaviors. This is partly the nature of the narrative of youth culture — Monday morning stories from the weekend that recount high risk behaviors (drinking), which is not the norm compared to less exciting and more typical behaviors (TV, sports, video games, studying, etc.).

The exaggeration of risky behaviors is typical in survey results across King County, Washington state and the country. This misperception is something we work to correct because youth tend to engage in risky behaviors more often if they perceive the majority of their peers engage in that same behavior.

The statisticians who created the healthy youth survey employed many proven techniques to ensure the results are reliable and valid. Surveys are not counted if they show patterns that suggest someone is filling out the survey intentionally incorrectly. Another technique includes inserting questions about behaviors that are made-up to see if respondents are trying to intentionally answer one way or the other.

A state epidemiologist involved in creating the survey said in response to this question (the most frequent challenge to youth self-report surveys), “If youth lied on the surveys, then all youth from across the state in every school district would need to coordinate and lie the exact same way, on the same questions, year after year for there to be a possibility of results being statistically incorrect due to intentionally falsifying answers.” This is in part because the numbers are so consistent year to year, school to school, district to district and grade to grade across the state.

Of course, some youth might “lie.” But the numbers are always reported with a confidence interval to ensure that given the relative number of survey respondents, it is clear that the results are always with a range.

And Mum — thank you for talking to your kids about drug use. These conversations play an important role in establishing the family norm that “we talk about drug use” and in furthering general prevention. Youth and Family Services staff are always available to meet in person with you, your children or any community group to discuss any topic related to drug use or prevention if you are interested.

The advice offered by Youth and Family Services is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you need additional professional resources, please write to