The percentage of teens using illicit substances dropped significantly in 2021 as the pandemic forced them into isolation from friends, classrooms, and extracurricular activities. Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine vaping – the most commonly used substances by teens all showed declines from 2020.
These findings were reported by a Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
The survey is given annually to students in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades. In addition to gathering data on substance use, the survey records teens’ perception of harm caused by using substances, whether they disapprove of using substances, and how teens view the availability of drugs.
Nora Volkow, the National Institute on Drug Abuse director, observed, “We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period.” She added, “These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic which caused seismic shifts in the day-to-day lives of adolescents.”
Alcohol consumption decreased significantly for tenth and twelfth-grade students, with a smaller decrease for eighth-graders. In 2021, 47 percent of seniors reported drinking alcohol compared to 55 percent the previous year. Among tenth-grade students, 29 percent reported drinking compared to 41 percent in 2020. Eighth graders also reported a decline in drinking, with 17 percent saying they drank in 2021 compared to 21 percent in 2020.
Alcohol intoxication (reported as being drunk) also dropped significantly among all three grades. For example, in 2021, 29 percent of seniors said they’d been “drunk” compared to 37 percent in 2020. Among tenth graders, 13 percent reported being drunk compared to 23 percent the previous year. Alcohol intoxication also dropped among eighth-graders. In 2021, 6 percent said they’d been drunk compared to 8 percent in 2020.
Marijuana, one of the most popular illicit drugs used by teens, declined significantly among all three grades. In 2021, 31 percent of seniors used marijuana compared to 35 percent the previous year. Seventeen percent of tenth graders used the drug compared to 28 percent in 2020, and eighth-grade use declined from 11 percent to 7 percent in 2021.
For three years, from 2017 to 2019, the percentage of teens vaping substances like marijuana and nicotine increased at alarming rates. For example, the percent of eighth-graders vaping increased from 13 percent to 20 percent; the percent of tenth graders vaping increased from 24 percent to 36 percent and the percent of seniors vaping went from 28 percent to 41 percent. In 2020 the percentages stabilized, and in 2021 showed a significant decline.
While declining in 2021, vaping continues to be an important issue. Today, nearly 32 percent of high school seniors, 22 percent of 10th graders, and 13 percent of eighth-graders admit to vaping. The majority of them prefer to vape nicotine, followed by marijuana.
Two issues drive teen substance use: drug availability and perception of risk.
Availability: Today’s teens know that obtaining substances is far too easy. For example, 70 percent of high school seniors say marijuana is either “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. Seventy-seven percent say getting their hands on alcohol is very easy and twenty-one percent of seniors believe it is easy to find MDMA (ecstasy). Thirty percent say getting their hands on amphetamines is also very easy.
Perhaps more alarming, 27 percent of eighth-graders said getting ahold of a drug like marijuana is either fairly easy or very easy to do. And nearly 50 percent said alcohol is easy to find.
In addition to teens knowing how easy it is to obtain substances, they don’t believe substances like alcohol or marijuana are very harmful. Only 22 percent of high school seniors said using marijuana “regularly” was a great risk. Only 22 percent said having one or two drinks of alcohol nearly every day involves a great risk. Perhaps more alarming, only 34 percent said it is risky to “have five or more drinks once or twice each weekend.”
When teens find it easy for them to obtain alcohol and drugs and don’t see much harm in using them, the risk for increased substance abuse increases.
Richard Miech, a principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, said, “These declines are an unintended consequence of the pandemic. Among the many disruptions adolescents have experienced as a result of the pandemic are disruptions in their ability to get drugs, disruptions in their ability to use drugs outside of parental supervision, and disruptions in peer groups that encourage drug use.”
He also noted, “It is possible that this delayed onset of drug use will lower these adolescents’ levels of drug use for the rest of their lives…In contrast, it is also possible that these declines will be fleeting, and drug use may surge among these adolescents once they are free of the constraints imposed by the pandemic.” Only time will tell if the significant decline in teen substance use observed in 2021 will carry over to 2022.
“Moving forward” according to Dr. Vokow, “it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use – whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure, or other factors – and harness them to inform future prevention efforts.”
Richard Capriola is a counselor and author of The Addicted Child: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Substance Abuse.
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