Youth drug abuse is a public health concern, with at least 1-in-8 teenagers abusing an illicit substance in the last year. Although most youth are in good health, some youth are at an increased risk for behaviors that can lead to poor health outcomes, such as high-risk substance use. The majority of adults who meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder started using substances during their teen and young adult years.

Substance Abuse Among Youth

  • 2.08 million or 8.33% of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide report using drugs in the last month.
    Among them, 83.88% report using marijuana in the last month.
  • 591,000 teenagers aged 12- to 17-years-old used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the last month.
  • 8.7% of 8th graders have used illicit drugs in the last month.
  • 21.3% of 8th graders have tried illicit drugs at least once.
  • By the time they’re in 12th grade, 46.6% of teens have tried illicit drugs.
  • 11.89 million 18- to 25-year-olds used drugs in the last month.
  • 4,777 Americans aged 15 to 24 years old died of an overdose of illicit drugs in one year.
  • 11.2% of overdose deaths are aged 15 to 24 years.

Youth Alcohol Abuse

 Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused substance among teens and young adults. 

  • 1.19 million 12- to 17-year-olds report binge drinking in the last month.
  • 11.72 million 18- to 25-year-olds report binge drinking in the last month.
  • 7.10 million 12- to 20-year-olds report drinking in the last month.
  • Among them, 60.2% report binge drinking during that period.
  • 25.6% of 8th graders have abused alcohol at least once.
  • 61.5% of teens have abused alcohol by 12th grade.
  • 9.15% of all 12- to 17-year-olds used alcohol in the last month.
  • 2.7% of 12th graders drink daily.
  • 16.8% of 12th graders have 5+ drinks in a row when consuming alcohol.
  • 0.4% of 8th graders drink daily; by 10th grade, 1.0% drink daily.
  • 407,000 teenagers aged 12- to 17-years-old met the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the last year.

Youth Drug Abuse

 Youth drug abuse trends may provide clues about the future public health as well as the efficacy of educational initiatives. 

  • 12.78% of all 12- to 17-year-olds report using marijuana in the last year.
  • 0.42% of all 12- to 17-year-olds report using cocaine in the last year.
  • 0.17% report using methamphetamines.
  • 0.02% used heroin.
  • 2.52% report misusing pain relievers.
  • 788,000 teenagers aged 12- to 17-years-old met the criteria for Illicit Drug Use Disorder (IDUD).
  • This age group is nearly twice as likely to suffer from IDUD than they are to meet the criteria for AUD.
  • 7.0% of 12th graders have abused tranquilizers.
  • 7.5% have abused hallucinogens.
  • 5.9% have used LSD.

Risk Factors of Teen Substance Abuse

 Risk factors for teen substance use include low levels of parental supervision and/or communication, family conflicts, inconsistent or severe parental discipline, and a family history of substance use disorder (SUD). Individual risk factors include difficulties handling impulses, emotional instability, thrill-seeking behaviors, and underestimating the consequences of using. Risk of SUD also increases during times of transition, such as changing schools, moving, or parent divorce. Societal risk factors for teenagers include peer pressure and the portrayal of teenage drinking in the media, including social media and advertising which promotes drinking behaviors in teenagers. 

How to Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs

 Teen drug abuse can have a major impact on a child's life.  The teen brain is in the process of maturing. In general, it's more focused on rewards and taking risks than the adult brain. At the same time, teenagers push parents for greater freedom as teens begin to explore their personality. That can be a challenging tightrope for parents. Teens who experiment with drugs and other substances put their health and safety at risk. The teen brain is particularly vulnerable to being rewired by substances that overload the reward circuits in the brain. Help prevent teen drug abuse by talking to your teen about the consequences of using drugs and the importance of making healthy choices.

Why teens use or misuse drugs

 Many factors can feed into teen drug use and misuse. Your teen's personality, your family's interactions and your teen's comfort with peers are some factors linked to teen drug use.

Common risk factors for teen drug abuse include: 

  • A family history of substance abuse. 
  • A mental or behavioral health condition, such as depression, anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior. 
  • A history of traumatic events, such as seeing or being in a car accident or experiencing abuse. 
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of social rejection. 

Teens may be more likely to try substances for the first time when hanging out in a social setting. 

Alcohol and nicotine or tobacco may be some of the first, easier-to-get substances for teens. Because alcohol and nicotine or tobacco are legal for adults, these can seem safer to try even though they aren't safe for teens. 

Teens generally want to fit in with peers. So if their friends use substances, your teen might feel like they need to as well. Teens also may also use substances to feel more confident with peers. 

If those friends are older, teens can find themselves in situations that are riskier than they're used to. For example, they may not have adults present or younger teens may be relying on peers for transportation. 

And if they are lonely or dealing with stress, teens may use substances to distract from these feelings.

Also, teens may try substances because they are curious. They may try a substance as a way to rebel or challenge family rules. 

Some teens may feel like nothing bad could happen to them, and may not be able to understand the consequences of their actions. 

Consequences of teen drug abuse

Negative consequences of teen drug abuse might include:

  • Drug dependence. Some teens who misuse drugs are at increased risk of substance use disorder. 
  • Poor judgment. Teenage drug use is associated with poor judgment in social and personal interactions. 
  • Sexual activity. Drug use is associated with high-risk sexual activity, unsafe sex and unplanned pregnancy. 
  • Mental health disorders. Drug use can complicate or increase the risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. 
  • Impaired driving. Driving under the influence of any drug affects driving skills. It puts the driver, passengers and others on the road at risk. 
  • Changes in school performance. Substance use can result in worse grades, attendance or experience in school. 

Health effects of drugs

 Substances that teens may use include those that are legal for adults, such as alcohol or tobacco. They may also use medicines prescribed to other people, such as opioids. 

Or teens may order substances online that promise to help in sports competition, or promote weight loss. 

In some cases products common in homes and that have certain chemicals are inhaled for intoxication. And teens may also use illicit drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine. 

Drug use can result in drug addiction, serious impairment, illness and death. Health risks of commonly used drugs include the following: 

  • Cocaine. Risk of heart attack, stroke and seizures. 
  • Ecstasy. Risk of liver failure and heart failure. 
  • Inhalants. Risk of damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys from long-term use. 
  • Marijuana. Risk of impairment in memory, learning, problem-solving and concentration; risk of psychosis, such as schizophrenia, hallucination or paranoia, later in life associated with early and frequent use. For teens who use marijuana and have a psychiatric disorder, there is a risk of depression and a higher risk of suicide. 
  • Methamphetamine. Risk of psychotic behaviors from long-term use or high doses. Opioids. Risk of respiratory distress or death from overdose. 
  • Electronic cigarettes (vaping). Higher risk of smoking or marijuana use. Exposure to harmful substances similar to cigarette smoking; risk of nicotine dependence. Vaping may allow particles deep into the lungs, or flavorings may include damaging chemicals or heavy metals. 

What Parents Can Do If You Suspect Drug Misuse

By the time a parent suspects their teen has a drug problem, he may have a serious problem.

Trust Your Instincts: If you have been carrying around the nagging feeling that your teen may be doing drugs, don't ignore it. Talk to your child and explain your concerns in detail. Be prepared -- your child may open up about his or her drug use and ask for help. Be strong and reassuring. Your teen may have made a mistake, but now is the time to correct it. Get your child into treatment with a mental health or addiction counselor. Your pediatrician can help guide you if you don't know where to start. 

Monitor the Situation: If your child denies substance use, don't write it off. Monitor closely. Having physical evidence -- like finding drugs or paraphernalia in your child's bedroom, pictures on Facebook or text messages about buying, selling or using drugs -- can help to force the issue, which raises the question: Is it ethical to search your teen's room or invade his privacy? 

Privacy: If you do not have particular concerns about your child's behavior, it is reasonable to allow teens a degree of privacy, which increases as they mature. However, when signs point to substance use, a parent has every right to violate a kid's privacy and look for drugs. Teenagers are not autonomous adults living in their parents' houses. Sometimes, in order to protect them, this is what is necessary. 

Talk to Your Pediatrician: Follow up on your concerns about your child's behavior even if you do not find physical evidence. Speak to your child's pediatrician and be explicit about the details. Your child may have a medical or mental health problem presenting with behavior changes. Whatever the source of the problem, your pediatrician can help you figure out what is wrong. Tips for Discussing Substance Abuse with your Teen 

  • Do not confront your child when you or she is angry or intoxicated. Wait until everyone has cooled off and sobered up.
  • Agree on a plan before talking to your child.
  • Select a time when you have privacy and interruptions will be minimal.
  • Put all of the cell phones away and send the other kids in the family outside..
  • Avoid direct accusations of drug involvement. After all, you could be wrong. Some behaviors that suggest substance abuse, like a flat affect and acting distant, could also be symptomatic of depression. Or perhaps the teen is having a hard time in school but hasn't confided all the details.
  • Don't belittle or heap on the guilt, as in, "You keep this up, mister, and you'll kill your father!" Substance abusers are usually well acquainted with self-loathing and may already feel remorseful for the heartache they have caused. Ratcheting up their feelings of worthlessness and shame probably will not motivate them to stop. If anything, it might compel them to get high, in order to mute their pain.
  • Try stating your concerns this way:
    • "We've noticed some changes in you lately." Name them. "We love you and sense that something may be troubling you. Sometimes people act differently because they experiment with drinking or other drugs and then realize that they've gotten in over their heads."
    • "Should we be concerned about that? If so, we hope you will be honest with us and tell us so that we can help you to stop, because drugs are too big a problem for any kid to have to handle all by himself."