Teens have been using less and less drugs over the past few decades, with two important exceptions, new research this week suggests. 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 gone up. The findings also indicate that having less free time and greater parental supervision may help kids stay away from using drugs 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’s Monitoring the Future survey, which regularly asks 8th, 10th, and 12th graders across the country about their drug use and attitudes toward drugs (the questionnaire is intended to be filled out anonymously for the 8th and 10th graders and is supposed to be fully confidential for the 12th graders).
They specifically wanted to see how the social lives of teens might have affected their drug use. So they divided the 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. More social teens, for example, might report playing sports, attending parties often, or having a part-time job.
From 1991 to 2019, the researchers found, reported substance use went down for drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, and most illicit substances. This drop was seen across all the groups of teens, but there were differences in how these patterns changed over time. The most social teens reported the highest levels of drug use, for instance, but also saw the biggest drops by 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 findings were published Wednesday in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.
“Substance use prevalence decreases across decades were largest for the groups defined by significant paid employment or high levels of social time, either with low engagement in other activities or lower levels of supervision, though these groups had the highest initial prevalence of each variety of substance use,” said lead author Noah Kreski, an epidemiologist at Columbia, in a statement from the university.
As to why this decline is happening, Kreski and his colleagues argue that social trends might be an important factor. Based on this data, teens today seem to be spending less unstructured time with their peers or older adults than they did in the 90s, including having parties, dating, or just working. And community programs focused on deterring kids from smoking or drinking may have also played a role.
While teens have begun to drink and smoke nicotine less, their levels of cannabis use and vaping have gone up over time. By 2019, 13% of teens reported using cannabis, 12% reported nicotine vaping, and 6% reported cannabis vaping in the past month. These trends were seen across all groups, but especially in socially engaged teens or those with a job. It’s possible that cannabis and vaping might have become alluring alternatives to alcohol and other drugs among teens as cultural norms have shifted over time, but the authors say that more research is needed to understand the exact drivers behind this rise and fall of teen drug use.
“Uncovering these links between complex patterns of time use and substance use outcomes could reveal new opportunities for intervention and education of adolescents surrounding substances, helping to promote declines in use,” said Kreski.
More recent data from the Monitoring the Future Survey suggests that these trends are continuing in both directions. While overall reported teen drug use once again declined between 2020 and 2021, cannabis use rose to an all-time high.