Key takeaways:

  • Young people are more susceptible to social and environmental influences, such as peer pressure and social norms, and have poorer impulse control and decision-making abilities
  • In 2020, 20.5% of 8th graders, 40.7% of 10th graders, and 53.3% of 12th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past year

  • Teens are especially vulnerable to drug and alcohol experimentation, and experimenting early can increase the risk of adverse effects, including addiction. Some teens are more at risk for addiction because of genetic, social, and environmental causes

There is no age limit on when someone may develop a problem with drugs and alcohol. Most teens have access to drugs and alcohol at school or from their peers, and experimentation is common. Early drug experimentation is a risk factor that can lead to higher instances of physical and mental health issues in adulthood, increased risk of developing an addiction, and increased risk of poverty, crime, and interpersonal violence.

Alcohol, drugs and youth

When young people abuse alcohol and illicit substances, they put themselves at risk in a number of ways, including general risks like overdosing and becoming addicted. This is concerning because recent research shows that two-thirds of teens will have used alcohol before they graduate high school, and over one-third will have used another illicit drug. [1]

Because their brains are still developing, teen drug use can also result in more negative impacts on the body, brain, and development than adult drug use does. Because of the active development of the brain in adolescence, teens are more likely to develop mental health problems and also addiction when they experiment with drugs and alcohol. [3]

Young people are more susceptible to social and environmental influences, such as peer pressure and social norms, and have poorer impulse control and decision-making abilities. Combined, this makes them more likely to make poor choices when it comes to drugs and alcohol, and also to be more susceptible to peer pressure. 

When a young person becomes addicted to a substance, it can dramatically alter their life. They may begin to suffer at school, become disinterested in activities, and distance themselves from parents and loved ones. Also, their physical and mental health can be negatively impacted, sometimes in ways that are long-lasting. It’s important to know the signs of drug use in teens and to seek treatment early to prevent these effects.

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Get help during Covid-19

At Recovered, we recognize the impact COVID-19 has had and the continued challenges it poses to getting advice and treatment for substance use disorders. SAMHSA has a wealth of information and resources to assist providers, individuals, communities, and states during this difficult time and is ready to help in any way possible.

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Statistics on drug and alcohol abuse in teens

The below statistics of drug and alcohol abuse are taken from the 2020 Monitoring the Future survey: [1]

  • In 2020, 20.5% of 8th graders, 40.7% of 10th graders, and 53.3% of 12th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past year

  • Vaping nicotine is increasingly common with 16.6% of 8th graders, 30.7% of 10th graders, and 34.5% of 12th graders reporting vaping in the past year

  • Regular use of marijuana is also rising in teens, with 11.4% of 8th graders, 28% of 10th graders, and 35.2% of high school seniors reporting smoking marijuana in 2020

  • The number of teens who report vaping marijuana in 2020 is also rising, with 8.1% of 8th graders, 19.1% of 10th graders, and 22.1% of 12th graders reporting past-year use

  • In 2020, 15.6 of 8th graders, 30.4% of 10th graders, and 36.8% of 12th graders reported using an illicit substance

  • Nearly 5% of 12th graders report misusing a prescription medication

  • Both vaping and smoking marijuana has steadily increased in 8th graders in the same time, with around 6.5% smoking and 4.2% vaping marijuana in the past month

  • Inhalant abuse is most prevalent in 8th graders, with nearly 3% reporting use in 2020

Age of first use of alcohol and drugs

Young people are five times more likely to become addicted to substances if they experiment before the age of 21. This is because the brain is not yet fully formed and recreational drug and alcohol use heightens the reward systems in the brain. Studies have shown that teens who abuse drugs and alcohol have a higher likelihood of becoming addicted as an adult, and also are at increased risk for other problems like crime, unhealthy relationships, and lower income. [2, 3] For this reason, it is extremely important to talk with children and young people about the risks of drug and alcohol abuse. 

Causes of addiction in young people

It is often a complex mix of factors that lead someone to form an addiction. While there is no singular known cause for substance use disorders, there are some known risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop an addiction, including: [4]

  • Genetics or a family history of mental illness or addiction

  • Social groups and peer pressure

  • Early exposure to drugs or alcohol from peers, family, or in neighborhoods

  • Traumatic experiences

  • Stress, depression, anxiety, or mood problems

  • Wanting to fit in with peers

  • Poor parental supervision and monitoring 

  • Academic failure

  • Growing up in crime or poverty-ridden areas

Click here for more information on these causes of addiction.

Final thoughts on drug and alcohol use in teens

Teens are especially vulnerable to drug and alcohol experimentation, and experimenting early can increase the risk of adverse effects, including addiction. Some teens are more at risk for addiction because of genetic, social, and environmental causes. Teen drug use can often be prevented by active parenting and supervision, but some teens will experiment with drugs or alcohol even when they have involved parents. Seeking treatment can help to prevent teen drug use from developing into addiction, helping to protect teens from the many long-term effects that can result from early drug and alcohol use.