On Monday, the Associated Press reported that, according to “various government and university studies,” 5 percent of high-school girls and 7 percent of middle-school girls have tried anabolic steroids. House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis repeated the statistics at Wednesday’s hearing on steroid use in the National Football League. Are teenage girls really that into steroids?
It depends on what studies you look at. Neither Davis nor the AP cited specific studies, but there are two ongoing, large-scale efforts to quantify risky behavior among teenagers in the United States. A 2003 survey of 15,240 high-school students by the Centers for Disease Control found that 7.1 percent of ninth-grade girls and 6.1 percent of all high-school girls have used steroids without a doctor’s prescription. A 2004 survey of about 50,000 students by the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” program found lower rates. Among the eighth-grade boys and girls, 1.9 percent said they had used steroids, versus 3.4 percent of the 12th-graders.
A study out of Washington State University and the University of Minnesota in 2002 asked about 4,000 kids if they had used steroids in the last year. Among the middle-school girls, 5.7 percent said they had, as opposed to 1.4 percent of their high-school counterparts. Are middle-schoolers really more likely to use steroids than older students? The study’s authors conclude that younger girls may be more concerned about their bodies, but they may also be less likely to understand the term “steroids.” (Over-the-counter “anabolic amplifers” and “prosteroids,” for example, might be confused with illegal, anabolic steroids.)
The CDC and University of Michigan surveys use different language in their steroid questions. The CDC asks the question without defining “steroids”: “During your life, how many times have you taken steroid pills or shots without a doctor’s prescription?” The Michigan survey introduces the question with a longer description of what steroids are and what they’re used for. Research has shown that ambiguous descriptions on drug-use questionnaires lead to increased rates of “recanting” among admitted users.
It’s often tricky to get people to report on full extent of their own illegal drug use. Studies have shown, for example, that adults are more likely to admit to drug use when asked in person rather than over the phone. Teenagers are more likely to admit to using drugs when they’re asked at school than when they’re asked at home, and younger kids are less likely to answer questionnaires seriously.
Explainer thanks Linn Goldberg of Oregon Health & Science University and Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan.