2.4. Self-Report Statistics

Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean

Self-report statistics report data that is disclosed by individual “offenders” themselves. Self-report statistics get gathered when people are asked to report the number of times they may have committed a particular crime during a set period in the past, regardless of whether they got “caught.” Self-report statistics represent, perhaps, our best measures for less serious offenses that are unlikely to be reported to the police (or unlikely to be detected) – with drug use serving as the best example.

“Monitoring the Future” is an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students, college students, and young adults. Each year, a total of approximately 50,000 8th, 10th, and 12th-grade students get surveyed (12th graders since 1975, and eighth and 10th graders since 1991). Additionally, annual follow-up questionnaires are mailed to a subset of each graduating class, for years after their initial participation. MTF findings identify emerging substance use problems, track substance use trends, and inform national policy and intervention strategies. Participation is confidential, which means we cannot link answers back to specific individuals. Therefore, people may be more likely to tell the truth. Click here for recent data: Monitoring the Future Drug Use Amongst Teens

In the Report:  One Form of Drug Use Showed a Sharp Increase in Use in 2018

The most important finding to emerge from the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey was a dramatic increase in vaping by adolescents. Vaping remains a relatively new phenomenon, so we are still developing measures related to this behavior. In 2017, the survey first asked about participants’ experiences vaping three specific substances—nicotine, marijuana, and just flavoring. As the section on vaping in this monograph shows, there was a significant and substantial increase in 2018 in the vaping of all three of these substances, including some of the most dramatic increases MTF has ever tracked, for any substance. [1]

Self-report statistics are useful, because they can help reveal possibly dangerous trends that we were previously unaware of, such as vaping. Further, they helps us identify “victimless” crimes, or crimes where there is no obvious victim, such as drug use, gambling, and underage drinking. Lastly, we can uncover offenses that are not as serious such as shoplifting, which are less likely to be known to police. [2]

However, self-report data also has its limitations. Respondents may exaggerate or underreport their criminal behavior, for various reasons. Many participants might not know that their behavior is/was illegal – so they won’t report it in a survey of criminal activity. Lastly, if we do not capture a large sample, we may be unable to capture relatively rare or geographically/demographically specific phenomena. There are many possible methodological pitfalls. For example, we are surveying kids in school about their substance abuse, but not reaching out to students on suspension, we may miss important data. [3]

Which Data Should We Use?

In each type of data (official, self-report, and victimization) there are pros and cons. Additionally, each source is more likely to produce a better picture of what is occurring depending on the area of study. If a person wanted to get the best statistics on reported homicides in the US, which source would be best? How about domestic violence? What if we were interested in finding out drug abuse rates amongst teens in high school?

  1. ohnston, L.D., Miech, R.A., O’Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.D., Schulenberg, J.E., & Patrick, M.E. (2018). MTF. 2018 Overview Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use
  2. Hindelang, Hirschi, & Weis, (1981). Measuring delinquency. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Pubs.
  3. Lab, S., Holcomb, J., & King, W. (2013). Criminal justice: The Essentials. Oxford University Press: Oxford.


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2.4. Self-Report Statistics Copyright © 2019 by Shanell Sanchez and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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