The general downward trend for teen drug use has thankfully held steady. This generation has been more reluctant than previous generations to try drugs, and the COVID-19 pandemic further facilitated a dramatic decrease of reported substance use across all demographics, a trend that held steady even in the following year, as schools reopened, and social distancing recommendations were withdrawn.
But in a country with well over 20 million adolescents, cases of drug use, such as cannabis, alcohol, and nicotine, number in the millions. To put things into perspective, an estimated 11 percent of eighth graders, 21 percent of 10th graders, and 32 percent of 12th graders reported any form of illicit drug use in 2022.
About one in five teens in the 10th, and one in four teens in the 12th grade vape nicotine. About 30 percent of 12th graders have had marijuana in the last year. Over half of all 12th graders have had alcohol in 2022.
There’s still a difference between drug use and drug abuse. But teens are even more at-risk for addiction than adults. Research shows that early drug use often correlates with addiction later in life, because teen brains are still in development, and more susceptible to addictive substances. While teen addiction is treatable, prevention is always better than a cure.
Why Do Teens Use Drugs?
There’s very little to wonder about when it comes to why teens use drugs in the first place. In addition to being less risk-averse than adults, teens naturally seek independence and are more likely to defy or disagree with figures of authority.
In other words, even though they know that drug use can lead to serious negative consequences – legally, physically, and mentally – teens have the privilege and the curse of not caring as much as the average adult.
Not all teens are openly rebellious or seek to stick it to the man. But in addition to the allure of the social taboo, one of the primary dangers of an addictive substance is that it is addictive. It feels good to be drunk, to be high, to be on a good trip. At least, for a while. And when that feeling wears off, many people pay a great deal and are willing to go risk much to feel it again.
After all, drug use – and drug addiction – are hardly monopolized by adolescence. All age groups are affected by addiction, with certain drugs capturing different demographics. Younger people are more likely to use ADHD medication improperly or without a prescription, while older people are more likely to misuse prescription painkillers. And across all age groups, alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine remain the most popular drugs.
Yet teens are exposed to a uniquely high level of risk when using an addictive substance. The areas of the brain most affected by addiction – particularly those involved in decision-making, risk assessment, and motivation – are also heavily affected by the continued release of dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters when taking drugs.
What Are the Biggest Risk Factors for Teen Drug Abuse?
Risk factors for teen addiction can be divided into two camps: internal factors, and external factors. Internal factors include genetic predisposition and mental health.
Teens with a history of alcohol use in the family may be more likely to struggle with alcohol use.
Teens with a history of mental health issues may be more likely to use drugs as a coping mechanism.
LGBTQ+ teens are more likely to face discrimination and rejection in their communities, and become at-risk for substance use.
External factors include a teen’s environment, from factors such as socioeconomic status to victimization at school, to their peers at school, or their parents’ attitudes towards drug use and addiction.
Sometimes, there is an overlap between the internal and external factors. Parental drug use is often a predictor for teen drug use, and a traumatic event at home or at school can negatively impact a teen’s self-esteem, personality, and mental health.
But just as there are risk factors that make an addiction more likely, there are also important protective factors.
What Are Protective Factors Against Drug Abuse?
Protective factors help defend a teen against drug abuse by reducing the chances that they will take drugs, or continue to take drugs. They include:
- A stable and loving home environment.
- Ample education about the effects of drug use, and an understanding of the relationship between mental health and drug use.
- Healthy coping mechanisms against teen stressors.
- Availability of mental health resources and counseling for concerns regarding anxiety, depression, or drug use.
- No access to drugs at home, including easy access to alcohol or prescription medication.
- Strong integration into the community, or positive feelings of “belonging”.
- A strong self-esteem.
Just as risk factors do not doom a person to addiction, protective factors do not guarantee sobriety. Addiction can affect anyone. Finding help as soon as possible is important.
Recognizing the Warning Signs for Teen Drug Abuse
Different drugs have different acute effects on a teen’s mind and body. Stimulants like cocaine, meth, or ecstasy severely reduce drowsiness and can induce a manic state. Drugs like alcohol cause dizziness, impaired coordination, slurred speech, and memory blackouts.
Keeping an eye out for drug paraphernalia might help you narrow down your teen’s drug usage. Look out for:
- Reused and hidden plastic bags.
- Bongs or pipes.
- Rolled bills.
- Used needles.
- Rolling paper.
- Small mirrors with white powder.
In addition to physical paraphernalia, drug use can cause changes in a teen’s behavior and personality. Watch out for:
- Increased irritability
- Sudden weight loss/weight gain
- Massive drop in grades and attendance
- Sudden change in friends
- Unusual behavior (violence)
- Frequent blackouts
Setting Up an Intervention
If you are worried about your teen’s behavior, consider bringing it up with their doctor. Medical professionals are trained to screen teenagers and adults for signs of drug use, and refer them to mental health and addiction specialists to seek treatment. If your teen refuses to acknowledge their problem despite clear evidence, consider speaking to a professional about an intervention for a treatment program.