Factors of Teen Drug Use

When it comes to teen substance abuse, it seems like we’re always playing catch up. Anytime a new drug hits the streets, its popularity soars, and we find ourselves fighting against it. At the same time, drugs that have been around for years sometimes rise sharply and unexpectedly in popularity. Why is that? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to either the increase, or decrease, in drug use among teens. Though certain trends have been discovered over the years, the cause of those trends seems a mystery.

For the past several years, two different organizations – Partnership for a Drug Free America and Monitoring the Future (University of Michigan – Ann Arbor) – have conducted “Attitude Tracking” studies in an effort to discover what influences teen drug use, and what makes one drug more or less popular than another. What they’ve found is that the perceptions young people have of different drugs vary widely, and often vary from generation to generation. Those perceptions have a direct affect on a drugs popularity and frequency of use.

The primary factors that seem to affect increased or decreased drug use among teens are perceived risk, perceived social approval, and perceived availability. The more risky or less accepted a drug is thought to be, the less likely it will be used by teens. Perceived availability is often associated with overall social approval, and so, a drug that’s readily available is considered socially acceptable and will likely increase in use. While these seem like common sense factors, how these perceptions are created is harder to understand.

In the mind of a young person, the “risk” of using drugs has many dimensions. Not only do teens consider physical risk, but also emotional (acting inappropriately, or getting depressed), social/relational, and aspirational. Physical risks include addiction, while social risks include disappointing friends or family, and loosing friends. Aspirational risks include loosing a job, or getting in trouble with the law. All of these perceived risks – physical, emotional, social, and aspirational – are different with each drug, and contributing factors include things like anti-drug campaigns and parental involvement, including discussions about the risks of drug use.

The challenge we face in curtailing teen drug use is that the perceived “benefits” of using a certain drug are known sooner and spread faster than perceived risks. The “benefits” of a drug (the euphoric high, the energy, the “numbness”) are immediately evident, and electronic forms of communication like blogs, chats, and text messages allow these “positive” experiences to be broadcast and spread quickly. Consequently, new drugs experience sharp use increases for months or even years. Meanwhile, gathering information about the drug’s risks takes time, but when specific evidence is gathered and aggressively distributed either via the media or friends and family, the results are dramatic.

The effects of drug specific information were first recorded during 1998 and 1999. In 1998, Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched a media campaign focused on the risks of marijuana use. Between 1998 and 1999, the percentage of teens that associated marijuana use with a perceived risk of loosing their friends increased from 47% to 50%. During that same year, there was a 2% overall decrease in marijuana use, and the downward trend continues to this day.

This effect was more recently seen with the drug Ecstasy. Between 1999 and 2001, there was a 71% increase in Ecstasy use. By the end of 2001, more than 1 in 10 teens admitted to using Ecstasy on a regular basis. Over time, the extreme dangers of Ecstasy became known, and the drug’s popularity began to decrease. As Ecstasy became more risky and less socially acceptable, use began to decline, too. At the end of 2005, Ecstasy use had decreased to just four percent.

It’s also interesting and important to note that parental involvement plays a vital role. The strongest declines in drug use occurred during years when more parents and guardians were talking to their kids about the risks of drug use, and the kids were exposed to anti-drug messages in the media. Some statistics actually show an increase of drug use during years when parental involvement was down, even if anti-drug media exposure was up.

It’s hard to fight drug use among teens, but it can be done. Young people are more intelligent than we often give them credit for being. If we talk with them about specific drugs and their negative effects, it will go a long way towards winning the battle against teen drug use.

“In the United States, approximately three-fourths of all deaths among persons aged 10–24 years result from only four causes: motor-vehicle crashes, other unintentional injuries, homicide, and suicide. Results from the 1999 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey demonstrate that numerous high school students engage in behaviors that increase their likelihood of death from these four causes…[including alcohol and illicit drug use]” Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), Centers for Disease Control, Risk Youth Behavior Surveillance.


Articles and Information About Teen Drug Abuse