Teens have been using drugs less and less over the past few decades, with two notable exceptions, according to a new study 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 indicate that having less free time and more parental supervision can help children avoid 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’s Watch the future survey, which 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 year and is meant to be completely confidential for 12th grade students).
They specifically wanted to see how teens’ social lives might have affected their drug use. They therefore divided respondents into different groups, based on their degree of social engagement, the amount of free time they had and how it was used, and the level of parental involvement outside of school. . More social teens, for example, might report playing sports, going to parties often, or having a part-time job.
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 adolescents, but there were differences in how these trends changed over time. The most social teens reported the highest levels of drug use, for example, but also saw the biggest declines in the late 2010s. In 2019, about 27% of teens reported using drugs. alcohol in the past month, while 15% said they had consumed alcohol in the past two weeks. The conclusions were published Wednesday in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.
“Decreases in the prevalence of substance use over the decades were greatest for groups defined by significant paid employment or high levels of social time, either with low engagement in other activities or levels lower supervisory levels, although 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 of the University.
As to why this decline is occurring, Kreski and his colleagues argue that social trends could be a significant factor. Based on this data, teens today appear to be spending less unstructured time with peers or older adults than they did in the 90s, including hosting parties, going out, or just working. . And community programs to discourage children from smoking or drinking may also have played a role.
As teens began to drink and smoke less nicotine, their levels of cannabis use and vaping increased over time. In 2019, 13% of teens reported using cannabis, 12% reported vaping nicotine, and 6% reported vaping cannabis in the past month. These trends were observed in all groups, but especially among socially engaged adolescents or those who were employed. Cannabis and vaping may have become enticing alternatives to alcohol and other drugs among teens as cultural norms have shifted over time, but the authors say more research is needed to understand the exact drivers of this rise and fall in drug use among adolescents.
“Discovering these links between complex time-use patterns and substance use outcomes may reveal new opportunities for intervention and substance education for adolescents, helping to promote substance use decline. “Kreski said.
More recent data from the Monitoring the Future Survey suggests that these trends continue in both directions. While overall teenage drug use declined again between 2020 and 2021, cannabis use Pink at a record high.
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