Recent studies have determined that marijuana use among college students has been steadily rising over the past decade. While parents continue to influence students’ marijuana use after they enter college, there is limited data examining how parents communicate about marijuana use and what impact this communication has on students’ outcomes. The types of marijuana messages that students receive from parents, and the relationship between parent communication and students’ marijuana attitudes and behaviors, is being examined by social psychologist Lucy Napper.
Marijuana is the most commonly used recreational drug by college students in the United States. Since 2006, marijuana use has increased by 35 percent, and it is projected to continue to rise due to various changes in its legal status. Heavy marijuana use is associated with a number of negative academic outcomes, including memory problems, missing class and poor academic performance. Given both the increase in marijuana use by college students and the potential negative consequences of heavy use, she says it is important to identify and understand the social and environmental factors that contribute to student use.
“It’s an interesting time as laws change and marijuana is being legalized in some states,” says Napper, assistant professor of psychology and health, medicine and society. “Parents may struggle to know how to talk to their children about marijuana in this environment. There’s not a lot of research with emerging adults, and it’s important to understand this developmental period where parents are still involved, yet students are becoming more independent.”
Working with colleagues at Loyola Marymount University, Napper asked students to complete a survey assessing marijuana approval, use and negative consequences. Students were also asked a series of questions about communication regarding marijuana use with their parents in the past 12 months. The team found three key themes in parent communication—risk communication, permissive communication and marijuana use communication. Higher levels of permissive communication were related to perceptions of parents as more approving of use, more approving of student attitudes, greater odds of non-abstinence, more frequent use and more negative consequences as a result of using marijuana. Parental permissive communication may encourage students to use marijuana more often, resulting in more frequent marijuana-related problems.
Risk communication, the most common form of communication, was associated with increased odds of a student remaining abstinent but not with frequency of marijuana use or negative consequences.
“Risk communication about marijuana appears most impactful when a child has not used it before,” she says.“For students who have tried marijuana, parental warnings may be perceived as less credible, particularly for those who used marijuana without experiencing any serious negative consequences.”
While the current study highlights the need to explore different types of communication content, Napper adds that further research should clarify what role context, style of communication, parent marijuana knowledge and perceived credibility play in understanding the influence of parent communication.