Teens have been using drugs less and less in recent decades, with two major exceptions, new research suggests this week. Reported levels of drug use have declined for most substances since the early 1990s, the study found, but rates of cannabis use and vaping have increased. The results also indicate that having less free time and more parental supervision may help children stay away from drug use in the first place.
The research was led by scientists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. They analyzed decades of data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse Tracking the future survey, which regularly asks 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the country about their drug use and drug attitudes (the questionnaire is intended to be completed anonymously by 8th and 10th graders and is supposed to which is completely confidential for 12th graders). ).
Specifically, they wanted to see how teenagers’ social lives might have affected their drug use. So they divided the respondents into different groups, based on their social involvement, the amount of free time they had and how it was spent, and the level of parental involvement outside of school. More social teens, for example, may report that they play sports, attend parties often, or have a part-time job.
From 1991 to 2019, researchers found that substance use decreased for drugs such as alcohol, cigarettes and most illicit substances. This decline was seen across all adolescent groups, but there were differences in how these patterns changed over time. The most social teens reported the highest levels of drug use, for example, but also saw the biggest declines in the late 2010s. In 2019, about 27% of teens reported using alcohol in the past month, while 15% reported heavy drinking in the past two weeks. The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.
“Decreases in the prevalence of substance use over the decades were greatest for groups defined by significant paid employment or high levels of social time, either with low participation in other activities or lower levels of supervision, even though these groups had the highest baseline prevalence of each variety of substance use,” said lead author Noah Kreski, an epidemiologist at Columbia, in statement from the university
As for why this decline is happening, Kreski and his colleagues argue that social trends may be a big factor. According to this data, today’s teens seem to spend less unstructured time with their peers or older adults than they did in the 1990s, including parties, hangouts, or simply working. And community programs focused on discouraging children from smoking or drinking may also have played a role.
Although teenagers have started drinking and smoking less nicotine, their levels of cannabis use and vaping have increased over time. In 2019, 13% of teens reported using cannabis, 12% reported nicotine, and 6% reported using cannabis in the past month. These trends were observed in all groups, but especially in socially engaged or employed adolescents. Cannabis and vaping may have become attractive alternatives to alcohol and other drugs among teenagers as cultural norms have changed over time, but the authors say more research is needed to understand the exact factors behind this rise and fall in drug use among teenagers.
“Uncovering these complex links between time-use patterns and substance use outcomes could reveal new opportunities for adolescent substance use and education, helping to promote reduced use,” Kreski said.
The most recent data from the Monitoring the Future Survey suggests that these trends continue in both directions. Although teen drug use declined again between 2020 and 2021, cannabis use rose at an all-time high.