Teen Substance Abuse Trends, Risks, And Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on October 11, 2021

Teen substance abuse may be affected by social, mental, and familial factors, potentially continuing into adulthood. Fortunately, substance abuse among teens is preventable with several measures.

Resources For Teen Substance Abuse

Teens experience unique challenges, consequences, and risk factors for substance abuse.

For this age group, substance abuse begins at a very young age, an age in which their brains are vulnerable to the chemical impact of substances such as drugs or alcohol.

Studies have long shown that early substance abuse can lead to long-term addiction, difficulties with mental health, physical health conditions, and much more.

For these reasons and others, it’s important to be aware of teen substance abuse, knowing the signs of use and prevention measures we can take as parents, caretakers, and academic leaders.

The Rate Of Teenage Substance Abuse

Teen substance use has been on the decline for some substances but has risen for others.

For example, underage binge drinking has declined 26% from 2011 to 2020. However, nicotine-based vaping doubled across several age groups from 2017 to 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) research shows that nicotine vaping increased:

  • from 7.5% to 16.5% for eighth graders
  • from 15.8% to 30.7% for 10th graders
  • from 18.8% to 35.3% for 12th graders

In 2020, 10.2% of 8th graders, 22.7% of 10th graders, and 27.9% of 12th graders vaped marijuana.

The Impact Of COVID-19 On Teen Substance Abuse

COVID brought about a new wave of risk factors, mental health challenges, and patterns of substance use among teens.

Though there were stay-at-home orders in place, 23.6% of teens continued to use substances face-to-face.

Additionally, 31.6% used substances with peers through technology, and 49.3% engaged in solitary use.

During a difficult time of transition, COVID has forced teens to learn a new way of school and communication with peers and teachers.

And to add to the burden of online learning, teens had nearly no outlets for hobbies and connections with peers that typically involved meeting in person.

These factors and others led to the rapid decline in teen mental health, leading many to seek the escape of drugs or alcohol during times of isolation.

However, researchers are still unsure of the full picture of the implications of COVID on substance abuse among teens.

Risk Factors For Teen Substance Abuse

There are many reasons a teen might begin to use substances. This can range from early childhood exposure to a need to fit in with peers.

In 2013, a group of researchers published their findings of the familial, social, and individual factors that contribute to substance abuse among teenagers.

Many of these risk factors are detailed below.

Familial Factors

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 12.5% of children aged 12 to 17 (three million children) lived with a parent who had a SUD.

Examining the impact of a person’s family experience on their substance abuse involves a detailed, nuanced approach.

Such factors of parental substance abuse, low economic status, fewer household resources, neglect, and other important factors can all contribute to addiction later in life.

Children whose parents are addicted to substances are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol because they:

  • have less supervision
  • are more likely to have behavioral issues
  • are more likely to have mental health issues
  • are more likely to engage in risky behaviors
  • do not have a strong family support system
  • may not perform well academically
  • have access to substances and drug paraphernalia
  • have a genetic predisposition to addiction
  • believe their parents approve of substance use, or won’t punish them for it

Many of the above factors and more can contribute to and perpetuate unhealthy patterns that lead to substance abuse.

One such factor, childhood neglect, can significantly increase a teen’s chances of engaging in substance abuse.

Neglect can not only strip a child of basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter, but it can also affect their brain’s development, creating lasting effects that contribute to addiction.

Childhood Trauma

There is a direct correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorders (SUD).

A study of those with traumatic experiences showed high rates of substance abuse:

  • 44.8% abused marijuana
  • 39% abused alcohol
  • 34.1% abused cocaine
  • 6.2% abused heroin and opiates

Additionally, the level of substance abuse was connected to a person’s level of childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as well as current PTSD symptoms.

In women specifically, sexual abuse was strongly correlated with cocaine and marijuana abuse. For men, physical abuse led to issues with cocaine and heroin.

Another study found that 29% of children who were abused participated in some level of substance use.

These findings suggest a strong relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and issues with substance use and poor mental health, with PTSD being the most prominent outcome.

Social And Relational Factors

If a teen is finding it difficult to connect with peers or make friends, they may be more likely to abuse substances.

The following social factors can put a teen at risk of substance use:

  • peer pressure
  • bullying
  • poor influences and a lack of good friends
  • social isolation
  • seeking popularity
  • seeking social acceptance
  • associations with gangs

According to the study of factors that contribute to substance abuse among teenagers, poor peer relationships are positively associated with adolescent substance use.

This could be out of a shared interest to use substances, an effort to gain social standing among others in their age group, or other factors.

The study also showed that these poor influences are directly related to negative parent-child relationships, in which the child seeks validation and community within their social sphere.

Mental And Behavioral Disorders

Teenagers are faced with many unique threats to their mental health, making them a susceptible group when it comes to disorders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • half of all mental health conditions start by the time a person is 14 years old
  • depression is one of the leading causes of illness for adolescents
  • the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 19 is suicide

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children are ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression.

Adolescents with mental illnesses are more prone to substance abuse than their peers who do not have mental or behavioral disorders.

This may be due to many reasons, one of which is a need to cope. The Child Mind Institute explains that substances can even out a child’s emotions when they’re feeling anxious or depressed.

Some teens also use substances to cheer themselves up. When their poor self-esteem or intrusive thoughts persist, substances are a way to quiet those negative feelings and thoughts.

Consequences Of Substance Abuse Among Teenagers

When substances are introduced into a young person’s life, they’ll likely experience several short-term and long-term consequences.

These consequences may affect a teen’s physical, emotional, and psychological health.

Short-Term Consequences

Many of the consequences of abusing drugs or alcohol can be seen and felt immediately in the short term after abuse.

Some of these effects might also lead to long-term consequences if left unchecked.

Short-term consequences a teen might face include:

  • loss of friends
  • poor academic performance
  • unbalanced emotions
  • changes in sexual activity
  • a decline in hygiene, physical appearance, and upkeep
  • worsened mental health problems
  • poor judgment skills
  • impaired driving
  • problems with law-enforcement
  • strains on relationships
  • loss of money
  • loss of job
  • dependence on drugs

Long-Term Consequences

There are several long-term repercussions of drug use among adolescents. These consequences can affect their long-term health, economic standing, ability to form relationships, and more.

A few of the long-term consequences of drug use include:

  • negative impacts on physical health: this may be a result of overdose, injuries while intoxicated, damage to vital bodily functions, and other issues
  • mental illness: adolescents who abuse substances may experience long-term issues with mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc.
  • legal consequences: crimes and issues with drugs may lead to arrest and other legal ramifications
  • inability to achieve higher education: if school is largely neglected due to substance use, a teen might jeopardize their chances of pursuing higher education
  • addiction: using substances, such as drugs or alcohol, in adolescence leads to problems with addiction in adulthood

Teen Substance Use: Early Intervention

Thankfully, teen substance abuse is preventable. Even if your student or child has already engaged in substance use, you can still offer them ways out.

Early intervention measures have been proven to decrease rates of teen substance use.

And researchers have found that adolescence is a crucial phase of life during which substance use behaviors are established.

Prevention measures start with schools and families. Teens need support, outlets for mental health counseling, education on addiction, and communication methods that they can relate with.

Here are a few of the ways prevention measures can be implemented on a structural level:

  • restricting advertising of substances: teens see ads aimed at their age group, often for vaping and drinking. These ads must be restricted to reduce exposure.
  • campaigns against substance use: governing bodies and activist organizations can use mass media to promote positive messages and discourage substance use.

Here is how schools might address this issue:

  • implement addiction education: teens need to learn about how substances affect their brains, what long-term consequences they’ll face if they abuse substances, and more.
  • teach life skills: general psychosocial development and life skills can be integral in decreasing drug and alcohol use.
  • random drug testing: schools may need to incorporate random drug tests to deter students from using substances or bringing them to school.
  • emphasize mental health and counseling: to prevent substances from being used as a coping method, schools can provide greater access to mental health treatment.

Here’s how parents can address substance abuse in the home:

  • provide outlets: parents can offer their teens outlets to work through emotions and difficulties, such as family outings, peer mentors, and safe spaces to talk at home.
  • consider counseling: a teen abusing substances may be dealing with underlying mental health conditions, which can best be treated by professional therapists.
  • create a more structured home: too much free time and lack of supervision may not be healthy for some teens. Parents can help their children by implementing more structure.
  • improve communication: researchers have found improved communication to be an effective substance abuse prevention measure in homes with teenagers.
  • resourcing themselves: It’s helpful for parents to learn about addiction, how it affects their children, and ways they can get involved in prevention strategies.

Resources For Addressing Teen Substance Abuse

Here, find resources from non-profits, government-run organizations, and other resource providers to find help for yourself and your teen.

Resources and organizations for teens:

Resources for parents:

Federal organizations and resources:

  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM): ASAM speaks on advocacy initiatives, education about addiction, and quality treatment methods for addiction.
  • The CDC, Stigma Reduction: learn about addiction, drugs’ effects on the brain, recovery options, relapse prevention, and more.
  • NIDA for Teens: teens, teachers, and parents can find information about drug abuse with this resource from NIDA.
  • NIDA, Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs: this page looks at a few of the most commonly abused drugs that are highly addictive.
  • SAMHSA: SAMHSA has dozens of resources to help youth and adults fight mental illness and addiction. These include grant opportunities for treatment, informational pages on addiction, and information about treatment options.

Free screening tools and tests for teens:

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on October 11, 2021