In today’s world, teen substance abuse is more of a serious concern than ever. Going into 2018, teenagers face challenges that did not exist a generation or two ago. For parents, it is not enough to just keep a watchful eye on their children. If you have adolescent or older teenage children, you now have to educate yourself about drug threats that were unimaginable when you were their age.
Luckily, for all of us, the National Institute on Drug Abuse funds a project that studies changes in the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of American young people in regards to substance use. This invaluable resource is known as the Monitoring the Future project.
What Is the Monitoring the Future Project?
In 1975, the MTF project began surveying high school seniors to “take the pulse” of young people to determine their attitudes and habits regarding alcohol and other drug use. That first survey involved approximately 16,000 students from 133 representative private and public high schools across the country.
Beginning in 1991, additional grades were added, and the total number of students surveyed increased significantly. Today, over 50,000 students from 420 schools take part in the survey annually:
- 8th graders – 18,000 students/150 schools
- 10th-graders – 17,000 students/140 schools
- 12th-graders – 16,000 students/133 schools
Of special relevance, the results of the MTF study are used to help shape the policy of the White House Strategy on Drug Abuse.
Specific Challenges Faced by Today’s Youth
Although young people have always experimented with intoxicants, there are a number of drug threats existent today that are beyond anything faced by previous generations. To paraphrase an old adage, “These aren’t your father’s drugs…”
- Potent strains of marijuana that are far stronger than anything in the past
- Legalized marijuana in many states
- Concentrated marijuana oils and waxes
- “Designer” drugs – ketamine, MDMA, Rohypnol, GHB
- Synthetic drugs – “Spice”, bath salts, 2C-I-NBOMe, etc.
- Over-prescribed opioid painkillers
- A heroin resurgence
- Incredibly-powerful synthetic opioids – fentanyl, carfentanil, gray death, pink
- Drug purchases on the Internet
- ADHD medication abuse – Adderall, Ritalin, etc
Teenagers Report High Rates of Any Drug Use
No matter how “good” or “responsible” you think your child and his or her friends are, the fact is that teenagers experiment with drugs at a much higher rate than you might realize. For example, just over 50% of high school seniors have used an illicit drug or an inhalant at least once in their lifetime.
But here’s the thing – the rates are also alarmingly high for the younger grades, as well – 37% of 10th graders, and over 23% of 8th graders have experimented with an illegal drug or inhalant.
Among 12th-graders during 2017, the drugs that were most reported for lifetime use were:
- Alcohol – 61.5%
- Marijuana – 45%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 19.5%
- ANY prescription drug – 16.5%
- Amphetamines – 9.2%
- Tranquilizers – 7.5%
- Hallucinogens – 6.7%
- LSD – 5%
- Ecstasy – 4.9%
- Inhalants – 4.9%
Among 10th-graders the 2017 results were:
- Alcohol – 42.2%
- Marijuana – 37%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 13.7%
- Amphetamines – 8.2%
- Inhalants – 6.1%
- Tranquilizers – 6%
- Hallucinogens – 4.2%
- LSD – 3%
- Ecstasy – 2.8%
- Cocaine – 2.1%
Finally, among 8th-graders in 2017:
- Alcohol – 23.1%
- Marijuana – 13.5%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 9.3%
- Amphetamines – 5.7%
- Inhalants – 8.9%
- Tranquilizers – 3.4%
- Hallucinogens – 1.9%
- Ecstasy – 1.5%
- LSD – 1.3%
- Cocaine – 1.3%
What do these statistics tell us?
The BIGGEST takeaway is how “experimentation” is skewing younger. Among the many sampled grade levels, the biggest jump in illicit drug use over 2016 was reported among 8th-graders, a +2.7% year-over-year spike.
Is Teenage Experimentation with Drugs REALLY That Big of a Deal?
It would be easy – and a mistake – to dismiss some of the MTF’s findings.
After all, some parents think, “What’s the big deal about young people experimenting?”
Most parents probably did something similar when they were younger. And, with the increasingly-legal status of marijuana, many parents may view casual drug use as a harmless personal activity.
But science has advanced since today’s parents were themselves teenagers. For example, a generation ago, addiction was not considered a legitimate medical condition. Today, it is accepted that it is a disease of the brain with identifiable symptoms.
Likewise, we now know more about how substance abuse physically changes the brain. Most importantly, we know that the brains of teenagers continue to develop until their early 20s. This means young people are at greater vulnerability to the damage caused by addictive substances. And the younger the person is, the more profound that damage can be.
Consequences of Teenage Substance Abuse
For example, look at some of the harm that “just” marijuana can do to a teenager:
- Lowered IQ – Young people who use marijuana before age 18 suffer a permanent average loss of 8 IQ points.
- Impaired memory – Daily marijuana consumption changes the shape of the hippocampus, causing 18% poorer scores on memory tests.
- Mental illness – Habitual use increases the risk of schizophrenia. The risk of psychosis is also DOUBLED.
- Aggression and Violence – Marijuana has been linked with a SEVENFOLD increased likelihood of violent criminal acts.
- Anxiety – Teenagers who regularly smoke pot until are 3 times as likely to subsequently struggle with an anxiety disorder.
- Depression – Non-depressed youths who initiate marijuana use are 4 times as likely to be depressed at a subsequent follow-up.
- Marijuana addiction – Teenagers who use marijuana before age 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely to be diagnosed with a marijuana use disorder.
- Potent Marijuana—A generation ago, the average THC concentration in marijuana was around 4%. Today’s strains can have an average potency of over 20% THC. Powerful marijuana “wax” contains up to 99.7% THC.
Current Teenage Substance Abuse Statistics Paint a Clearer Picture
While the statistics about lifetime substance use are important, it is even more critical to know which substances teenagers are using NOW. This is when the drinking and drug use has gone beyond mere experimentation and become a regular practice.
“Current” substance abuse is defined as usage within the past 30 days.
Among 12th-graders, these are the past-month usage rates for various substances:
- Alcohol – 33.2%
- Been drunk – 19.1%
- ANY illicit drugs or inhalants – 25.7% of high school seniors – greater than 1 in 4
- Marijuana – 22.9%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 6.3%
- ANY prescription drug – 4.9%
- Amphetamines – 2.6%
- Alcohol – 19.7%
- Been drunk – 8.9%
- ANY illicit drugs or inhalants – 18.1% – almost 1 in 5
- Marijuana – 15.7%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 4.5%
- Amphetamines – 2.5%
- Alcohol – 8%
- Been drunk – 2.2%
- ANY illicit drugs or inhalants – 8.6%
- Marijuana – 5.5%
- ANY illicit drug other than marijuana – 2.7%
- Inhalants – 2.1%
- Amphetamines – 1.7%
What do these statistics tell us?
Again, the most striking realization is how much substance use goes on in the lower grades. Almost as worrisome is how easily-available these intoxicants truly are.
For example, almost 53% of American 8th graders think that it would be “fairly easy” – and perhaps even “very easy”—for them to obtain alcohol. Over 35% have the same opinion about marijuana.
In fact, more than 1 in 10 report that they could easily get crack.
Let that sink in for a moment.
14-year-olds can’t drive, and they don’t normally have an outside job, yet over 10% of them say they would have no problem finding crack cocaine.
And that simple fact is why exactly we should all worry about the ongoing problem of substance abuse among American teens.
Changing Attitudes Drive Current Trends
One of the biggest realizations gained from the MTF report is how young people’s attitudes towards drinking and drug use have changed over the years. This goes a long way towards explaining why usage rates have begun to creep up.
Let’s take a look at how many students disapproved of substance use a generation ago, compared to today.
- In 1991, 84.6% of 8th graders disapproved of someone even trying marijuana. In 2017, that disapproval had dropped considerably, to just 67.3%
- Among 10th-graders, the disapproval trend went from 74.6% to 48.1%.
- Among 12th-graders, it plummeted sharply, from 68.7% to only 39%.
In addition, the number of young people who view marijuana as potentially harmful is decreasing. In 1991, for example, over 83% of 8th graders believed that smoking marijuana every day could negatively affect someone’s health.
But by 2017, that percentage had dropped to just 54.8%
This example is why marijuana use among teenagers shows the first significant increase in 7 years.
Richard Miech, the Principal Investigator of the MTF survey, said, “This increase has been expected by many. Historically, marijuana use has gone up as adolescents see less risk of harm in using it. We’ve found that the risk adolescents see in marijuana use has been steadily going down for years to the point that it is now at the lowest level we’ve seen in four decades.”
Don’t Forget the Human Cost of Teenage Substance Use
Think of the people these statistics represent. Take a moment and try to picture the faces of the real-life young people who are impacted by substance abuse.
These numbers mean that in every average-sized 8th grade classroom of 25 students, there will be two 14-year-olds who have drunk alcohol or used drugs recently.
In a 10th grade class, that number jumps to five 16-year-old students.
By the time they reach the 12th grade, that average, everyday classroom will have between 8 and 9 students who regularly use drugs or drink – 1 out of every 3.
If you really want to visualize the human cost of teenage substance abuse, pick up one of your child’s school yearbooks. Open it up to their grade. Now, go through the whole section and just take a look at the picture of every third teenager.
How many of those faces do you know?
How many are your teenager’s friends?
Was YOUR child among the group of pictures?
THIS is why adolescent drinking and drug use IS such a big deal.
Substance abuse is NOT an inevitable teen “rite of passage”. Even experimentation or casual recreational usage can quickly progress to dependence, abuse, and addiction.
Just as significant, there are other consequences to teen substance use:
- Auto Accidents – 7-fold increased risk to be in an alcohol-related car crash.
- Sexual Assault – 89% of victims self-report drinking prior to the assault.
- Violence – Roughly half of both assailants and victims admit to using alcohol or drugs before the incident.
What Should I Do If My Teenager Is Using Drugs or Alcohol?
The most important thing to do is STAY CALM.
Your initial reaction and subsequent reactions can be the biggest factor in determining if your teenager successfully recovers.
- DON’T ignore the issue. Addiction is a progressive disease that ALWAYS get worse.
- DON’T take your teen at their word. Don’t listen to their promises, their begging, or even their threats.
- DON’T try to handle this alone. Addiction is bigger than your family.
- DO get help from professionals. The best recovery programs tailor services to address the addiction on multiple levels.
- DO educate yourself about the disease of addiction. The more you learn, the more you know what you should—and should NOT—do.
- DO stay positive and patient. Addiction can take a terrible toll on the entire family. If you feel anxious or depressed, find help and support for yourself.
When your teenager abuses alcohol, drugs, or inhalants, time is of the essence. But with intervention and treatment that addresses how their treatment needs differ from that of adults, the insidious progress of their disorder can be halted. Your child CAN recover and go on to live a happy and productive life.