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Juveniles on Drugs, Part 3

Juveniles on drug poster

In parts one and two of Juveniles on Drugs, we used data from Monitoring the Future and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to find out how many young people use various kinds of illicit substances. In this final installment, we will turn out attention to some of the possible reasons they choose to use them and what effect drug use has on their school grades.


It seems obvious that a young person’s home life will naturally influence his or her outlook and behavior, but it’s only when we stare at the numbers that we see how much this is truly the case, especially when it comes to drug taking. We grouped 8th- and 10th-grade Monitoring the Future respondents into four categories depending on who they lived with: their mother and father, their mother only, their father only, or neither parent. We then checked what percentage of each group said they’d taken 13 different drugs illicitly.

Without exception, the usage rates were lowest for the “mother & father” group. More surprising, the young people living with just their father had higher rates across 12 of the 13 drugs than the mother-only group; the exception was Adderall (used without a prescription). And 10 of the 13 drugs were used at the highest rates by the young people living with neither parent. When comparing the “both parents” to “neither parent” groups, the biggest difference was in heroin with a needle: The past-year usage rate was six times higher for the “neither” group than the “both” group.

It stands to reason that lacking one or both parents could increase the chances of a young person taking drugs (especially if, as we saw in part two, deviant behavior correlates with drug use) because a large part of what parents offer their children is in the guidance and discipline they bring to their lives. Let’s look at this more closely.


The graphic above shows seven different examples of parental involvement and what percentage of 8th- and 10th-grade students who were and weren’t subject to them said they’d been drunk in the past month.

The “disciplined” students had lower rates of past-month drunkenness than the students whose parents didn’t enforce the rules, with the biggest difference visible in the students who were always allowed by their parents to go out with friends on school nights: 12.5% had been drunk in the past month versus 2.3% of the students who were never allowed out. This makes sense, as it’s well-known that young people are affected by their peers, and if you aren’t around your peers to get drunk with them, it’s much less likely you’ll get drunk at all.

But there are differences in the subtler types of parental involvement too: Kids who say they can speak to their parents about problems in their lives report lower rates of past-month drinking, as do those who eat dinner with their parents every night of the week. The result of lower parental involvement, therefore, seems to sometimes be higher rates of drinking and perhaps other drugs. But what’s the result of more drinking and drugs? Let’s now see if they have an effect on academic achievement.


The MTF survey asks 8th- and 10th-graders what they think their average grade is for the current year, from A to D. We graphed their responses after dividing them into drug users and non-drug users. We chose five of the most common substances so that as many respondents were included as possible. The results are pretty clear and can be seen in each graph where the colored line (drug users) crosses the white line (non-drug users), as this is where the two groups diverge from achieving B+ and better grades in higher numbers (in the case of the non-drug users) to achieving the higher grades in lower numbers (for the drug users).

When we look just at students whose average grade is A, the biggest difference is seen in cigarettes. 19.7% of students who didn’t smoke at all in the past month had an average grade of A, compared to only 3.7% (more than fives times fewer) students who smoked one to five cigarettes a day. The difference, while still there, was much smaller for e-cigarettes: 20.8% versus 11.3% (1.8x difference). This is probably because there isn’t as much of an overlap between young people who smoke cigarettes and those who use electronic vaporizers as one might think. Of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in 2015, only 5%, 7%, and 10% respectively said that they used e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking. More than half said they just wanted “to experiment,” and one-third said they used them because they “taste good.”

The effect of impaired scholastic achievement, exacerbated by drug use, can ripple through a person’s entire life, which is why the graphs above are so significant. They, alongside the correlations we have seen between drug use and deviant social behaviors in the first two parts of this series, represent some of the clearest warning signs that drug use by young people can represent much more than an experimental phase. It can, in some cases, prove to be formative in a severely negative sense.

The good news is that drug use by young people hasn’t increased in the past few years, but – according to MTF researchers – that doesn’t mean it won’t increase in the future. “Generational Forgetting,” which is the phenomenon of young people discovering drugs that went out of fashion some years ago, is one perpetual risk. Another is the emergence of completely new drugs, like synthetic marijuana and “bath salts,” whose reputations for being “good drugs to take” can spread faster through the Internet and other media than news of their negative effects, leading to spikes in usage rates. The MTF 2015 report notes that if this happens in the case of recreational marijuana, through advertising in states where it’s made legal, then its prevalence among middle and high school students could rebound to, or even surpass, past levels.

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