About a fifth of 10th graders and a third of 12th graders have reported using an illicit substance in the past year. While alcohol and cannabis usage are highest, teens also illegally use prescription medication, painkillers, nicotine, and other drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. What draws teens to drugs?
Whether it’s alcohol or heroin, early drug use can have a devastating effect on a teen’s long-term health – today more than ever, as more and more counterfeit pills and designer drugs feature extraordinarily dangerous drugs like fentanyl.
But the keyword here is can. Many teens experiment with a few substances during high school or college, and don’t end up addicted. Others, however, are not so lucky.
A lack of knowledge and understanding of the risk of drug use, natural curiosity, and the glamorization of drug use are some of the reasons why many teens are drawn to substances like cannabis, alcohol, and prescription drugs. A lack of self-preservation – or more accurately, an inability to appropriately gauge and process risk – also help explain why teens are much more eager to try things than adults might be. Let’s explore some other reasons teens use drugs and what that might mean for communities.
Peer pressure is a classic. You see someone popular do something, so you feel compelled to do it too. Not all teens will follow the leader – but in certain groups, especially tight-knit cliques, where drug use might be expected to a degree, it becomes normal to smoke a bowl or have a beer while underage.
The desire to fit in is stronger with teens than adults, partially because the teen brain is more incentivized to seek and form social connections than the adult brain.
Are teens really more curious than adults? Maybe. It would be more accurate to say that teen psychology is hardwired towards experimentation – teens are at a point in their personal development where they still need to figure out who, and what, they are.
Add to that a level of carelessness that doesn’t go away until the mid-20s, and it helps explain why teens tend to be a bit more daring than their older counterparts. This goes for drug use, as well.
Not all teen drug use is fueled by whimsy. Some teens turn to certain drugs – like alcohol, or cannabis – as a relaxation tool. Others use prescription amphetamines or drugs like Ritalin to help them concentrate, stay awake to study longer, or overcome academic pressure.
A big problem with self-medication is that it often utilizes an addictive substance to temporarily distract from a long-term problem. The result, in too many cases, is teen addiction.
Rebellion Against Authority
Some teenagers use drugs as a form of rebellion against parental or societal norms, seeking independence and control over their lives. This cliché has its own psychological purpose – to help teens figure out what makes them who they are in spite of their environment, or in opposition to it.
Drugs are far from the only way to do that, but being so taboo while simultaneously being accessible makes them a common tool for rebellion, whether in the form of a few beers and cigarettes after school or something stronger.
Ease of Access
Speaking of accessibility, easy access to drugs is another contributing factor. Prescription medication can often be found at home, or while visiting a relative. Alcohol and cigarettes can be stolen from the pantry or acquired through an adult patsy at the nearest convenience store. Some drugs are harder to come by, but surveys show that most teens know where to find nearly any drug they want (through the Internet).
Media and Pop Culture
Media is powerful. It helps shape societal norms and culture. For example, underage drinking is tacitly accepted – it’s often considered a rite of passage, or a coming-of-age trope in shows and movies. It wasn’t too long ago that the same could be said about cigarettes. Many celebrities openly drink, smoke, and use illicit substances. For some teens, knowing that their favorite pop star has done a few lines before a show might empower them to give it a try the next time the opportunity presents itself at a party.
Ignorance of the Dangers of Drug Use
Teens know about hangovers and drug overdoses. Some teens might even know about the importance of staying hydrated while using amphetamines or other stimulants. But they might not be aware of the severity of the long-term effects of certain drugs, or the power of addiction.
Teens might not be aware that alcohol withdrawal can kill, or that long-term drinking causes permanent neuropathy and pain. They might not know that many prescription drugs sold illegally are often counterfeit, and laced with powerful drugs that can cause a swift overdose death before the paramedics have the chance to arrive at the scene. Many teens don’t realize that vaping still presents serious risks for the lungs.
A family history of substance abuse can increase a teen’s susceptibility to drug experimentation due to genetic and environmental factors. If alcoholism is a problem in the family, then a teen is more likely to struggle with alcohol addiction than their friends, even if they start drinking at the same time. If teens are used to certain kinds of drug use at home, they’re far more likely to continue that same drug use in their own adult lives.
It’s crucial for parents, guardians, and educators to engage in open and non-judgmental conversations with teenagers about the risks associated with drug use and to provide support and resources for healthy coping strategies and alternatives.
If you or a loved one are struggling with drug use, then seeking help is important. We at Visions offer residential care programs for teens with drug problems and offer individualized treatment plans to help teens manage and overcome addiction. Give us a call today to learn more about our programs and treatment modalities.