With the important exceptions of vaping and marijuana, substance abuse among U.S. teenagers has been going down

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Except for cannabis use and vaping, substance use among American teens is going down, according to a recent study.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Substance Use and Misuse, the study examined data from more than half a million adolescents in 1991-2019 from the national Monitoring the Future survey to track trends in use of cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis, vaping of both nicotine and cannabis, and other substances for children in school grades 8 (13-14 years old), 10 (15-16) and 12 (17-18).

The researchers cross-referenced these habits against demographic factors such as level of social engagement, participation in structured activities, level of adult supervision, and employment. They further cross-referenced the patterns across race, sex, and parental education, along with other demographics.

The researchers said in a news release that while the reasons for the decrease in substance use among teens is not clear, it appears to correlate to a number of social factors, including increased parental monitoring and decreased partying and dating.

“Their findings found that low social engagement and participation in structured activities seemed to be the overall best predictors of substance abuse avoidance,” the release said. “Conversely, substance abuse was higher overall in the highly social and highly engaged groups with less supervision. Time at a paid job was also a significant factor in increasing the chances of trying illicit substances.”

The research also found that “Cannabis use use increased among all groups, but especially among adolescent workers. Nicotine vaping increased the most among the highly social and engaged group that was less supervised. And cannabis vaping increased most among social but disengaged teens.”

“Social settings where adolescents interact with peers (e.g., parties) provide opportunities for substance use, especially in the absence of adult supervision,” said Noah Kreski of Columbia University, the study’s lead author. “These social settings may produce peer pressure for adolescents to engage in substance use in order to fit in.”

The researchers suggest that such peer pressure may play drive substance use among employed adolescents, largely because they interact with older teens and adults. Cannabis users especially appear to seek out other cannabis users, creating social circles where the drug plays a central role; the researchers said vaping is similarly correlated to social influence.

The authors suggest that a variety of peer-led and community-based programs may be effective in diminishing use across a broad spectrum of adolescent demographics. They also urge further examination of mental health conditions that may lead to substance abuse.

The researchers note several limitations to the study; the data was not comprehensive on how teens spent their time, and did not include data from 2020 and 2021, so it does not capture behaviors in the pandemic.

Across the sample examined, here are some further results from the study:

  • 15% respondents reported any past two-week binge drinking;
  • 27.4% drank alcohol in the past month;
  • About 14.7% of adolescents smoked cigarettes in the past month;
  • 12.6% reported any past-month cannabis use;
  • Over 8.64% reported past-month use of other substances;
  • 12.3% reported nicotine vaping and 6.2% reported cannabis vaping from 2017 onward.
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