Teen drug abuse has always been a major issue in the United States. Helping people kick the drug habit is difficult enough, but teens are particularly susceptible to drug abuse in some unique ways. However, teen drug abuse and adult drug abuse are different in some key ways. Everything from the types of drugs being abused, where they abuse them, and a variety of other factors changes for teens compared to adults who use drugs. A big part of that has to do with availability. Drugs are expensive, and it isn’t always as easy for teens to obtain certain substances. Lots of drug trends in teens involve them getting high on what’s available, because more traditional, stronger drugs aren’t available. Still, regardless of the substance, teen drug abuse is a major epidemic that needs attention. People who begin using drugs early on in life are more likely to have problems with addiction later in life, so preventing drug abuse in teens is a key step in preventing it in adults as well.
Addiction and Teenagers
It’s important to understand the difference between substance abuse and addiction. When it comes to teenagers, many of them experiment with drugs or alcohol. They consider it to be something that normal young people do. Their friends are all doing it, and so they join in. This is substance abuse, and it is not an addiction. An addiction occurs when the substance of abuse begins to take over the teen’s life. In the case of most drugs, this only happens through repeated exposure to it. However, there are some drugs that can lead to addiction with the first use. Experts indicate that heroin, cocaine, and meth are a few examples of this.
The Teenage Brain and Addiction
Our brain is one of the most important organs, and it’s certainly the most complicated. The brain allows a person to think, feel, speak and move. It’s responsible for controlling everything an individual sees. It also regulates breathing, heart rate, and so much more. The brain allows you to survive. For teenagers, their brains are still developing; albeit at an alarming rate. The fact that they haven’t developed yet makes them vulnerable to substances. When a teenager uses drugs or alcohol, these substances change the way the brain works. It may not process things the way that it should. Within the brain, drugs work in one of two ways. They either imitate its chemical messengers, or they overstimulate the reward center. As a result, the brain goes through some pretty significant changes. For teens, many of these changes may be irreversible. Others may be able to be reversed, but it might take time. This is true for all types of substances. Still, regardless of the substance, teen drug abuse is a major epidemic that needs attention. People who begin using drugs early on in life are more likely to have problems with addiction later in life, so preventing drug abuse in teens is a key step in preventing it in adults as well. Let’s begin by establishing some of the most recent findings in teenage addiction, where there is actually relatively good news to share.
Teen Drug Abuse is Significantly Down in Nearly All Areas
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, in 2016, nearly all illicit drug use was at its lowest levels since the survey’s inception. The survey has been monitoring 12th-grade students since 1975 and added 8th- and 10th-grade students to the survey in 1991. In that time frame, the rate of illicit drug use, at least among those in the survey, was at its lowest level in every area except one: marijuana use. More on marijuana use in a moment. Overall, it’s incredibly encouraging news.
- Among 8th-graders, illicit drug use is down to 5.4 percent, from a peak of 12.6 percent in 1995
- Among 10th-graders, illicit drug use is down to 9.8 percent from a peak of 18.4 percent in 1996
- And in 12th-graders, illicit drug use is down to 14.3 percent from a peak of 21.6 percent in 2001
Obviously there is still work to be done, but the big takeaway is that efforts to prevent teenage drug use are showing successful results. Teenage use of alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, meth, inhalants, and sedatives are all at their lowest levels since the MTF survey’s inception and have shown generally steady declines over time. While marijuana usage in 2016 did not show a year-over-year decline in 2016, the results did show a five-year decline in usage among 8th and 10th-graders, and an unchanged rate of usage in 12th-graders. This may not seem like a huge win, but giving the changing laws surrounding the legality of marijuana use in many states, it is significant that legalizing marijuana has not contributed to any sort of increase in teenage use of marijuana. In fact, past-year use of marijuana among 8th and 10th graders is at the lowest level it’s been in over 20 years.
Teenage Perceptions of Drug Abuse
Also, while the actual usage of drugs is down in many areas, an interesting wrinkle in this study is that teenage perception of drug use has shifted. Teens are less likely to see occasional drug use as a problem or a risk. A number of drugs, including bath salts, Vicodin, and Ecstasy, are less likely to be perceived as harmful when used “occasionally.” This creates an interesting dichotomy, where teens do not perceive many drugs to be as harmful as in the past, yet they are not using. This may suggest that more teens are opting to not use drugs due to personal reasoning, rather than out of fear.
Marijuana Use and Perceptions in Teens
Marijuana has seen the biggest shift in attitudes toward usage, as the debate about legalization rages on in many states across the country. Progressively fewer teens see regular marijuana use as harmful, with only 31.1 percent of 12th-graders reporting that they do. That’s down from 58.3 percent who found regular marijuana use to be harmful in 2000. However, general disapproval of regular marijuana use remains high at 68.5 percent. Again, the implication is that teens are choosing not to use marijuana for reasons other than fear about health complications. There is a higher rate of marijuana usage in teens in states with medical marijuana laws, but there may not be as close a correlation there as it appears. Past studies have shown that states with medical marijuana laws already had slightly higher rates of teen marijuana usage even before those laws were enacted. The rate of 12th-graders who claim to have used marijuana in the last year is at 38.3 percent in states with medical marijuana laws, compared to 33.3 percent in states without medical marijuana laws. These are consistent with overall marijuana usage numbers in teenagers over the last two decades, which have fluctuated between 30 and 40 percent since 1994. In fact, the rate of marijuana use in teenagers is actually starting to outpace the use of tobacco. About 2.5 percent of 10th-graders report smoking marijuana daily, but only 1.9 percent report smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products. In 12th-graders, 6 percent report daily marijuana use, but only 4.8 percent report daily tobacco use.
Alcohol Use in Teens
Alcohol is the most abused substance in the United States and is the most likely substance to trigger a check-in to a rehabilitation clinic. It’s difficult to kick alcoholism for anybody, but bad drinking habits that start early in life are more likely to carry on through a lifetime. Luckily, there is a lot less binge drinking going on among teens. In fact, all forms of alcohol use in teens has dropped significantly from its peak in the mid-1990s. Today, there is even a major decline in the number of teens who report ever having tried alcohol. In 1997, the percentage of 12th-graders who reported ever trying alcohol in their lives was 81.7 percent – more than four out of five. In 2016, that number had declined to 61.2 percent. This means a much lower percentage of teens who are experimenting with underage drinking – at least during high school years. Alcohol remains the most common substance abused among teens, just as it is among adults, and while the rate of those who have tried alcohol is still high, it is in a state of constant decline.
Some types of substance abuse, like alcohol and marijuana, are used at fairly high rates among both adults and teens. However, there are a number of substances that are uniquely high in use among teens. One of those epidemics in teens is inhalant use. Inhalants are one of the substances more frequently used by adolescents. They are often one of the first substances tried by children and teenagers, largely because inhalants are readily available. Inhalants can be common household substances like:
- nail polish
- paint thinner
- felt-tip marker fluid
- hair spray
- rubber cement
Because these things are cheap and readily available, it is easy for teens to access and experiment with them. These are just normal household items, so in many cases, teens can get ahold of them without even raising suspicion. Inhalants work exactly the way it sounds like. The user takes a substance with strong fumes and inhales them until it begins to have a narcotic effect. Often the fumes are inhaled directly from the source, or from a rag soaked in the substance. Inhalants create a short, intense high that lasts only a few minutes, so users will often use several times in succession. Because of this, it’s possible to have serious complications stemming from inhalant use. In fact, about 200 Americans each year die from inhalant overdose known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.
The Rise of Synthetic “Designer” Drugs
One of the more recent drug trends is the rise of synthetic drugs. These are basically lab-created chemical compounds that are designed to skirt the law and remain legal while creating similar effects to existing drugs. These are substances that basically take advantage of loopholes in existing drug laws. Many of them find themselves regulated by the FDA in time, but not before spending several months on the market. Some examples of the street names for synthetic drugs include:
- Spice (synthetic cannabinoid)
- K2 (a synthetic cannabinoid)
- U47700, also known as Pink (a synthetic opioid)
- White Lightning (synthetic cathinone)
- Bloom (synthetic cathinone)
There are countless other types of substances, and even more names for them, but they’re all dangerous, and most of them take advantage of blind spots in FDA regulation to be available for purchase at gas stations, convenience stores, and other public locations. By using substances that aren’t technically banned or otherwise made illegal, they can sell these substances out in the open. Often, these substances are labeled deceptively. Some will be listed as detergents or as experimental substances labeled “not for human consumption.” Others are sold openly as alternatives to marijuana or other illicit drugs. Many times, they’re sold as “natural” or “safer” alternatives to illicit drugs. The problem is, that’s not true. Most synthetic drugs are several times more potent than the drugs they simulate. There is a much higher concentration of THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – in K2 than there is in actual marijuana. Similarly, Pink is several times more potent as an opioid than heroin. Furthermore, since these substances are usually made and sold under the pretext that they are not intended for human consumption, they are also frequently developed in unpredictable, uneven batches. There is little to no oversight on the production of these substances, meaning a bad batch can go out and there will be nobody held accountable if somebody gets hurt as a result. But still, until the FDA catches up to these substances, they continue to be sold openly, sometimes even over the internet. Because they’re easier to obtain and legal, many teens find these substances to be appropriate alternatives to the drugs they’re based on.
The Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Teen Drug Addiction
Drugs can have a profound effect on a teen’s life. Many of them don’t stop to think about the consequences of their actions. They’re only concerned about getting high and the euphoric feeling they enjoy. There are certain short and long-term effects that teens should be aware of. In the short-term, drug addiction can lead to:
- Indifference to physical or emotional pain
- The possibility of death
- Breathing problems
- Slower brain function than normal
- Memory problems
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Body temperature fluctuations
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
In the long-term, the effects of drugs on teenagers are much more severe. These effects can include:
- The risk of addiction
- Problems in school
- Problems in family relationships
- Social issues with friends
- Withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit
- The possibility of death from overdose, or combining substances
- The risk of respiratory failure
- The risk of seizures
- Paranoia and psychosis
- Extreme weight change
If most teens could see and understand this information, they’d know that using drugs wasn’t worth it. The risks and dangers are simply too high.
Recognizing the Warning Signs of Teen Drug Addiction
If you’re a parent, guardian, friend or family member of a teen, and you’re worried about them getting into some sort of drug, the first thing to do is one of the simplest – talk to them. Ask them about what they know about drugs, and what their experiences have been. Find out if they have any questions. Establish some ground rules and consequences, and make your expectations clear when it comes to drug abuse. Still, make sure they know that if they make the wrong choice, you’re still there for them. Maintaining an open and non-judgmental line of communication with the teens in your life is key to ensuring they keep you in the loop if something is going wrong. That said, teenagers tend to be very private. So if they’re getting into something they don’t think you’ll like, they may try to hide it from you. That’s okay – there are warning signs to look for. Pay particular attention if your teen exhibits:
- Sudden, extreme mood swings (all teens are a bit moody, but an extreme version may have something to it.
- A sudden shift in social activities or groups
- A lack of interest in things that were once important
- Extreme behavioral changes
- Increased secrecy or withdrawal from family
- Unexplained disappearance of prescription drugs or other substances around the house
Any of these can be a sign of drug use in your teen, or they could be something else entirely. Puberty and adolescence is a strange time. But if you notice these things when they happen, it may be easier to open up a dialogue and take the first steps to prevent a problem before it arises. Whatever you do, ensure that you act as a safety net for your teen. You can express disappointment and deliver negative consequences, especially if you’ve established your expectations beforehand. But your focus shouldn’t be on punishment and anger, it should be on solutions. You want your teen to beat this problem, not be so afraid of you that they sink deeper into it, further from your grasp. You do that by being understanding and helping them work through their problems.
Addiction Recovery for Teenagers
If you have a teenager with a substance abuse problem, professional treatment is needed to recover. It’s not enough to just assume that your child is in a phase right now and that it will pass. This is a very serious issue that you cannot ignore. Professional treatment will help your teen get to the heart of the problem. Maybe they’re struggling in school and they’re using drugs or alcohol to cope. Perhaps they have an underlying mental health condition that neither of you is aware of. No matter what the problem is, it’s important to understand that it exists. That’s the only way recovery is going to be possible for your son or daughter. Whatever you do, ensure that you act as a safety net for your teen. You can express disappointment and deliver negative consequences, especially if you’ve established your expectations beforehand. But your focus shouldn’t be on punishment and anger, it should be on solutions. You want your teen to beat this problem, not be so afraid of you that they sink deeper into it, further from your grasp. You do that by being understanding and helping them work through their problems.