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10 Facts About Teenage Drug Abuse

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Substance abuse in teens is an ongoing reality in the United States. Close to 5 million American adolescents suffer from a substance abuse or alcohol use disorder.

Here are 10 facts you might not know about teenage drug abuse.

1. Nearly half of college students use illicit drugs.

Teen drug use is common among college students. In 2016, 45 percent of male college students and 42 percent of female college students used an illegal drug.

The Top Five Reasons for Teen Drug Abuse

  • Peer pressure and social influence
  • Escape or self-medication
  • Academic or performance pressure
  • Coping with trauma, anxiety, depression or another underlying mental health issue
  • Media influences: Studies show that teens who watch movies that depict smoking or alcohol consumption are more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves.

Read Use of Drugs and Alcohol in Movies May Fuel Teen Drug Abuse.”

There are many dangers associated with teen substance use. For one, teen drug experimentation can descend into teenage addiction. Moreover, drug use at a young age can impact the likelihood of adult addiction.

2. Children and teens who use alcohol and drugs are more likely to have a substance use disorder as adults.

According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 74 percent of adults participating in a substance abuse treatment program started using alcohol or drugs before the age of 17.

Furthermore, those who began using at 11 years old or younger were more likely to have multiple addictions, as compared to those who did not use drugs or alcohol until they were 25 or older.

Mental health professionals who work with teens observe the link between depression and substance abuse in teens on a daily basis. They know from interacting with teens how closely mental health and substance use are related.

However, researchers are now exploring this connection, too. Consequently, they have discovered that “negative urgency”—taking risks during times of extreme negative emotion—is the mechanism that links symptoms of depression with teen drug use.

A study that surveyed 476 adolescents found that emotional vulnerability increases the likelihood of trying a variety of drugs in early adolescence. “Depression levels are associated with lifetime use of a variety of substances in early adolescence, and targeting this risk factor with preventive efforts may be useful in reducing risk,” the researchers concluded.

In other words, teaching children how to regulate their emotions, as well as addressing teen depression at the first signs of trouble, may keep kids from trying drugs.

Learn how to recognize teen depression symptoms. 

4. Marijuana use is at a 30-year high among college students.

According to the most recent Monitoring the Future Survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 39 percent of college students use marijuana—the highest levels of use among college students in the past three decades.

In terms of regular marijuana use in high school, 36 percent of high school seniors use marijuana, similar to past years, and 6 percent report daily use. According to teen substance abuse statistics, more high school students used marijuana than cigarettes in 2016.

Furthermore, drug use in teens goes up in states with medical marijuana laws, compared to states without them. In 2016, 38 percent of high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws reported marijuana use, compared to 33 percent in nonmedical marijuana states.

5. Teens don’t recognize the risks of smoking marijuana regularly.

Last year, only 31 percent of 12th graders reported that regular marijuana use is harmful, compared to 58 percent in 2000. This is a worrying statistic, as regular marijuana drug use in teens can lead to the following short- and long-term effects:

  • Changes in mood
  • Impaired memory
  • Cognitive difficulties (thinking and problem-solving)
  • Respiratory problems (coughing, lung infections, etc.)
  • Faster heart rate
  • Hallucinations and paranoia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts in teens
  • Decreased IQ: One study showed that people who started smoking marijuana heavily in their teens and continued to use it lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38.

Find out how to tell if your teen is using marijuana.

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Drug Abuse Alcohol Use

6. Alcohol is the substance most widely used by teenagers.

Teenage alcohol and drug abuse surveys reveal the following statistics:

  • 61 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) by the end of high school
  • 23 percent have consumed alcohol by 8th grade
  • 46 percent of 12th graders have been drunk at least once in their life
  • 9 percent of 8th graders have been drunk at least once in their life.
Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Drug Abuse Drinking

7. Binge drinking is a real problem among college students.

According to the last 10 years of data from the Monitoring the Future Survey, one in eight college students (12 percent) reported having 10 or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks before the survey. Moreover, one in 25 reported having 15 or more drinks in a row at least once in those two weeks.

Furthermore, males are more likely to binge drink. College-age men were three times as likely as women to have 10 or more drinks in a row.

The Risks of Teen Binge Drinking

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Accidental injuries, including falls and drowning
  • Drunk driving/motor vehicle accidents
  • Unprotected sex/sexually transmitted diseases
  • Violence/altercations
  • Suicide
  • Increased likelihood of addiction and stress-related issues in adulthood
  • Damage to the brain, liver, and heart over time.

One of the most commonly abused prescription drugs is Adderall, a stimulant usually prescribed for teens diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, 9.5 percent of male college students and 10 percent of female college students use Adderall outside of medical supervision. Additionally, about 6 percent of high school students use Adderall.

College students are using Adderall for a number of specific purposes. These reasons include:

  • Staying awake to study longer
  • Being able to party later in the night and consume more alcohol
  • Keeping weight off
  • Being alert in class or at work after not getting much sleep.

Both college and high school students often believe that Adderall can help them stay on top of their workload and do better academically. Consequently, this leads to teen drug abuse. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Research has shown that students who abuse prescription stimulants actually have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t.”

Newport Academy Substance Abuse Resources: Teen Drug Abuse Dangers

9. Teen substance use can be deadly.

Nationwide, the drug overdose death rate has more than doubled during the past decade among people aged 12 to 25, according to the most recent Trust for America’s Health report. Young adults ages 19 to 25 are particularly at risk for a fatal overdose, the report said.

Furthermore, teen drug use can lead to fatal automobile accidents. A 2015 study found that half of the teen and young adult drivers who die in car crashes are using marijuana, alcohol, or both.

10. The good news: Overall, teenage drug use among adolescents is declining.

Teen drug, alcohol, and tobacco use are at their lowest rates since the 1990s. Moreover, use of prescription drugs, heroin, ecstasy (MDMA), cocaine, crack, sedatives, and abuse of inhalants among adolescents all decreased.

“The declining use of many drugs by youth is certainly encouraging and important.” But we need to remember that future cohorts of young people entering adolescence also will need to know why using drugs is not a smart choice.”

—Lloyd D. Johnston, PhD, principal investigator at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, a lead funder for the Monitoring the Future Survey

Therefore, it is essential that we continue educating and communicating with our teens about substance abuse and addiction. These conversations need to happen among families, within school systems, in communities, and on a national level.


Monitoring the Future 2016 Reports Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 2;109(40):E2657-64. 

Drug and Alcohol Dependence 144 (2014) 225–230. 

Inj Epidemiol. 2015 Dec; 2(1): 1. 


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