Teen Substance Use is Problematic Now and Later

For parents who had given in and joined the societal shoulder shrug over teen experimentation with substances, a new report should put some strength into the parental backbone. The report comes from CASA, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and deals with use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco by American teens.

The bad news is that adolescents are particularly vulnerable to making the poor choices which can lead to addictions in adulthood. The CASA report notes that an alarming 75% of teenagers have experimented with alcohol, tobacco or drugs of some kind (legal or illegal). Alcohol tops the list of substances tried by teenagers at least one time with 73% of teens admitting to drinking on at least one occasion. Cigarettes were owned to being tried at least once by 46% of high school age kids. Both alcohol and cigarette use have declined slightly among teens since 1999, while reported use of smokeless tobacco, marijuana and prescription drugs appears to be on the rise. Misuse of prescription medications for ADD and Oxycontin is growing among adolescents. Of the 75% who admitted trying substances, a dismaying 20% are already addicted.

That 20% of the teens are addicted is troubling enough, but the 75% who are experimenting should cause similar concern. That is because the CASA data backs up former research strongly connecting early substance use to substance dependency in adulthood. Statistically, 90% of Americans who are addicted to alcohol, tobacco or drugs tried the substance during their teenage years, most before the age of 18. Research says that fully one fourth of those who experiment with a substance at a young age will be addicted to that substance in adulthood, while only 1 out of 25 who experiment after age 21 form an addiction.

Another reason that adolescents ought to be considered at risk for addiction is purely biological. The teenage brain is still developing in the area which carries out decision-making, judgment and self-control. Because it is not completely developed it is more susceptible to the negative effects of harmful substances. Teens who use drugs risk impaired development and greater likelihood that they will make the poor choice to continue using. For this reason, CASA researchers say that substance use of any kind is dangerous.

The good news is that teen substance use and abuse is very much preventable. Substance use and/or abuse should not be considered normal teenage behavior. It isn’t. One way to prevent it is to change the culture of expectation. The most powerful agents of change in a teens’ life are his parents. Parents who guard their children and are engaged with them on a daily basis can stand between the teen and substance use. The greatest risk factors for addiction among teens are trauma and abuse. Parents who work hard to maintain safe, loving environments with regular dialog about the dangers of substance use can have greater influence than the surrounding culture which is neglectfully unaware.

Efforts which predicated declines in alcohol and cigarette use need to continue and to extend to the new substance dangers that young people are encountering. Society has a vested interest in preventing teenagers from exposing themselves to addiction since judicial costs associated with alcohol and substance abuse run in the billions of dollars. Parents, however, cannot afford to wait for society as a whole to step in. Parents who caringly establish boundaries and expectations can prevent substance use now and addiction later in their teenager’s life.