Teen Drug and Alcohol Use at New Low, Survey Finds

Published February 1, 2017

Far fewer teenagers in the United States are using drugs and alcohol than a year ago, a new national survey has found.

“Teenagers’ use of  drugs, alcohol, and tobacco declined significantly in 2016 at rates that are at their lowest since the 1990s,” the University of Michigan (UM) stated in a press release in December 2016 announcing the results of the 42nd annual “Monitoring the Future: A Continuing Study of the Lifestyles and Values of Youth” survey.

“Overall, the proportion of secondary school students in the country who used any illicit drug in the prior year fell significantly between 2015 and 2016,” the release stated. “The decline in narcotic drugs is of particular importance, the researchers say. This year’s improvements were particularly concentrated among 8th and 10th graders.”

The study found “the overall percentage of teens using any of the illicit drugs other than marijuana has been in a gradual, long-term decline since the last half of the 1990s,” the release said.

“About 45,000 students in some 380 public and private secondary schools have been surveyed each year in this national study, designed and conducted by research scientists at UM’s Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse,” the release said. “Students in grades 8, 10, and 12 are surveyed.”

‘Definitely Not Surprised’

Renee Johnson, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says media reports and anecdotal observations tend to exaggerate teen drug use.

“I was definitely not surprised,” Johnson said. “Adults tend to overstate youth drug use and imagine that young people are using ‘more than ever.’ The scientific data has been telling us this for years, and it’s important to examine trends closely, rather than make assumptions. In a paper I published in 2015, I noted that use of nearly all substances was down since 1999.”

Sheryl Ryan, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Use and Prevention, says the trend may not last.

“One of the things we have seen that is a little concerning is on some of the surveys, we’ve seen that teenagers’ perception that drug use—whether you talk about alcohol, marijuana, or other illicit substances—their perception of the harm of those substances has decreased,” Ryan said. “We may be seeing a slowing of this declining trend, and when perceptions change, sometimes it takes a little while for us to see changes in behavior.”

‘Major Change in Social Norms’

Johnson says teens may be changing their behaviors to keep up with societal trends.

“For cigarette smoking, we’ve had a major change in social norms,” Johnson said. “Even young people recognize the harms involved with cigarette smoking. This has resulted in the lowest cigarette smoking rates in decades.”

Young Adults ‘at Incredible Risk’

Johnson says it’s important to note although teenagers are less likely to use illicit substances, young adults are more likely to do so.

“While we’re seeing lower rates in our adolescents, Americans 18–24 years old are still at incredible risk for other substances,” Johnson said.  

Johnson says the economy could be affecting young adults’ drug use.  

“More millennials are living at home because of the pressures and the difficulty that many of them have had finding jobs, the financial pressures to pay off student loans, so young people find themselves burdened more by debt,” Johnson said. “Those are economic trends I think could potentially have an impact on the availability of funds to go out and purchase substances. If that’s the case, we should see declining rates in our young adults, but we’re not seeing that, so I’m not sure: Is it because they don’t have to pay for rent they can use their money to pay for substances?

“It’s possible that with young people who are living at home, unable to get a job, don’t have a sense of their future, are not financially secure, there could be some underlying negative effect or emotional distress that has them turning to substances for the euphoric, numbing effect,” Johnson said.

Family Influence

Johnson says a strong family dynamic is key to continuing the decline in the use of illicit substances.

“A strong family relationship helps young people be more emotionally strong,” Johnson said. “Often, with substance use, the problem is not the mere use of a substance, but rather the use of substances in concert with emotional or psychological distress. Substance use among adolescents in families characterized by violence and emotional problems is more likely to lead to problematic use.”

Ryan says parents should learn about substance use and set a good example for their children.

“Familial factors are very, very important,” Ryan said. “Kids learn from the people around them.”

Ryan says parents should also be on the lookout for other addictive behaviors.

There are a number of different types of addictive behaviors,” Ryan said. “Substance use is one of them, but we also have addictive behaviors that relate to eating, overeating, and now there’s some new data coming up to look at the addictive behavior related to social media use and video gaming use. So, sometimes I worry, are we seeing a change in our rate of substance abuse in our young people but what’s happening is that’s being replaced with other addictive behaviors?”

Tori Heart ([email protected]) writes from Wilmette, Illinois.