Teens have been using drugs less and less in recent decades, with two notable exceptions, new research shows this week. Reported levels of drug use have declined for most substances since the early 1990s, the study found, but rates of cannabis use and vaping have increased. The results also suggest that less free time and more parental supervision can help children stay away from drug use in the first place.
The research was led by scientists from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. They analyzed decades of data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse surveillance of the future Survey that regularly asks 8th, 10th and 12th graders across the country about their drug use and attitudes towards drugs (the questionnaire is intended to be completed anonymously for 8th and 10th graders and fully confidential for 12th graders be treated ).
In particular, they wanted to see how the social life of teenagers might have affected their drug use. Therefore, they divided respondents into different groups based on how socially engaged they were, how much free time they had and how it was spent, and the level of parental involvement outside of school. For example, more social teenagers say they play sports, go to parties often, or have part-time jobs.
From 1991 to 2019, the researchers found, reported substance use declined for drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, and most illicit substances. This decline was seen across all groups of teenagers, but there were differences in how these patterns changed over time. For example, the most sociable teens reported the highest levels of drug use, but also experienced the largest declines in the late 2010s. In 2019, about 27% of teens reported drinking alcohol in the past month, while 15% reported binge drinking in the past two weeks. The insights were released Wednesday in Substance Use and Misuse magazine.
“The decline in substance use prevalence over the decades was greatest among groups defined by significant employment or high levels of social time, with either low engagement in other activities or lower levels of supervision, although these groups highest initial prevalence of any type of substance,” said lead author Noah Kreski, an epidemiologist at Columbia, in a expression from the university.
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As a reason for this decline, Kreski and his colleagues argue that social trends may be an important factor. Based on this data, teens today appear to spend less unstructured time with their peers or older adults than they did in the ’90s, including parties, dating, or just working. Community programs aimed at discouraging children from smoking or drinking may also have played a role.
As adolescents have started to drink and smoke less nicotine, their cannabis use and vaping has increased over time. As of 2019, 13% of teens reported using cannabis in the past month, 12% reported vaping nicotine, and 6% reported vaping cannabis. These trends were observed in all groups, but particularly among young people who were socially engaged or had a job. It’s possible that cannabis and vaping may have become compelling alternatives to alcohol and other drugs among teenagers as cultural norms have shifted over time, but the authors say more research is needed to pinpoint the exact causes of this Understand the rise and fall in drug use among teenagers.
“Uncovering these associations between complex patterns of time use and substance use outcomes could provide new avenues for interventions and substance-related education among adolescents, and help promote declines in use,” Kreski said.
Recent data from the Monitoring the Future survey suggests these trends are continuing in both directions. While overall reported teenage drug use fell again between 2020 and 2021, cannabis use fell again rose to an all-time high.