Study: Military Children Prone to High-Risk Behavior in Wartime

Students at Humphreys High School wait to register for classes on the first day of the 2013-2014 school year in the cafeteria of the former Humphreys elemetary school. (ASHLEY ROWLAND/STARS AND STRIPES)
Students at Humphreys High School wait to register for classes on the first day of the 2013-2014 school year in the cafeteria of the former Humphreys elemetary school. (ASHLEY ROWLAND/STARS AND STRIPES)

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Children in military families during wartime are more likely than their nonmilitary peers to abuse drugs and alcohol, get into fights or bring guns to school, among other risky forms of behavior, says a study of California school-age students published Monday.

Compared to those in civilian families, adolescents in military families were more likely to report alcohol use (45 percent vs. 39 percent), prescription drug misuse (36 percent vs. 27 percent), physical violence such as being pushed, slapped, hit or kicked (36 percent vs. 27 percent), and carrying a gun on campus (10 percent vs. 5 percent).

The study, which appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, is more extensive than previous investigations that have shown military children at risk of engaging in negative behavior during wartime, researchers said. "These results suggest that a sizable subset of military-connected students are struggling to cope with the ramifications of two long wars," lead author Kathrin Sullivan, a Ph.D. student in social work at the University of Southern California, said in a university news release.

The study mined data from nearly 689,000 middle and high school students who took the 2013 statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, including more than 54,000 who were part of military families. It compared the rates of substance use, experience of physical violence and nonphysical harassment, and weapon-carrying among military- and nonmilitary-connected students. California is one of the few states that asks school-age children whether they have a parent or caretaker serving in the military, including the National Guard and Reserves.

Nationwide, there are currently more than 1 million school-age children with parents serving in the military and nearly 2 million when including children younger than 5, according to the study.

Researchers found that children affiliated with the military were about 50 percent more likely than their peers to report both recent and lifetime substance use. Substances included alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, prescription drugs and "other drugs," such as cocaine or crack, inhalants, methamphetamines and LSD. Military-connected youth were 73 percent more likely to report recent use of drugs from this "other" category, according to the study.

For prescription drugs -- including painkillers, cold medicine and tranquilizers -- students were instructed to only consider use of those drugs with the intention of getting high or for purposes other than those prescribed by a doctor.

Military-connected students were also more likely to report both physical and nonphysical violence than their civilian peers. With respect to physical violence, 27 percent of military students reported having been in a fight, compared with 17 percent of their nonmilitary peers. Compared to those in civilian families, military-affiliated students reported higher incidences of nonphysical harassment, such as the spreading of rumors (44 percent compared with 37 percent) and sexual jokes or gestures (43 percent compared with 38 percent).

The authors noted that evidence suggests students who change schools often, as military students do, may be at higher risk for violence and harassment. About twice as many adolescents affiliated with the military reported carrying a gun or other weapon, such as a knife, on campus, compared to their nonmilitary peers. About 10 percent of teens connected with the military said they've carried a gun on campus.

Higher rates of weapon-carrying among military-connected students have also been reported in other parts of the country, the authors said, surmising one reason for the disparity may be that having a parent in the military increases access to weapons. They may also be more likely to bring weapons to school "as a pre-emptory defense mechanism," given that they change schools more often than their civilian counterparts, the authors write.

The authors emphasize the need to identify military students in educational records nationwide. Only 14 states currently do so.

"More efforts in social contexts, including civilian schools and communities, to support military families during times of war are likely needed," they said.

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