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Young and Using: America’s Perceptions of Youth Drug Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people died from drug overdoses than in any year on record in 2014. Additionally, overdose deaths among young people defined as those aged 12 to 25 are on the rise; fatal overdoses have more than doubled in 18 states since 2001. All this points to the truth – addiction can derail a promising life before it even gets on track.

How much does the average American know about teen drug abuse? Are we aware of which drugs pose the greatest threats? Do we know what to do if our children are struggling with addiction or flirting with the dangers of drugs?

To better understand America’s perceptions of youth drug use, we surveyed 2,000 people. Despite many differences of opinion, one thing is clear: Youth are just as affected by drugs as adults. Read on to see what we found.

Drugs and Social Media

When it comes to drug use, how influential is social media? Do social networking sites make it easier for young people to get drugs? Or can social media be used for good – a place where we can raise awareness and educate our youth?

Based on the responses to our survey, the vast majority of Americans (82 percent) believe social media can raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse. While 78 percent believe social media makes it easier for teens to get drugs, 50 percent believe drug education in school has the power to decrease teen alcohol and drug abuse. Clearly, many Americans feel that social media sites can play a significant role in whether youth will decide to use drugs or alcohol – so what does that perception look like among different age groups?

study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University recently found that teens on social media did have an increased risk for using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. About 70 percent of teens surveyed said they use social media, and that group was three times as likely to have used alcohol and twice as likely to have used marijuana.

Youth may also be especially aware of the influence of social media as it relates to peer pressure and drug use. In our survey, those in the youngest age group, 18 to 20, were more likely to believe youth are pressured by social media to use drugs (62.2 percent) than any other group except for those aged 60 and over.

At the same time, pressure on youth to try drugs was a substantial concern among all age groups. 45 percent or more of all age brackets surveyed feel young Americans face this pressure from social media, indicating a widespread worry that social media plays a role in drug use among America’s youth. Next, we decided to find out just how much Americans know about substance use among youth.

Youth Alcohol Use Perceptions and Realities

About 8.7 million Americans aged 12 to 20 say they currently drink, according to a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The good news is that these figures continue to decline year over year. The bad news is that they’re still far too high.

This is perhaps why so many Americans overestimate teen alcohol use.

According to our results, 62 percent of respondents overestimated teen drinking, believing that 45 percent or 55 percent of high school students had admitted to drinking in the last year. The real figure is closer to 35 percent.

Overdoses and Other Scary Consequences

Here is a startling truth: Thousands of people “under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning, and other injuries such as falls, burns, and drowning,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

When we asked our survey respondents which drug was most likely to take a young life, 42 percent recognized alcohol as the ultimate threat. Perhaps this is because we know that alcohol is the fourth-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. overall; it claims nearly 88,000 lives per year.

We also asked which drug is most likely to be abused by high schoolers in America and, again, a majority (54 percent) pinpointed alcohol as the greatest danger. Perhaps this is because we know that alcohol is easier for teens to get from friends and family members (whether they know about it or not).

Stress levels, family alcohol abuse, and problems at home all correlate with an increased risk of alcohol abuse, so the best thing parents can do is be aware, cultivate good relationships with their teens, and talk about the risks early.

Prescription Drug Abuse and Overdoses

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World notes that of all the drugs out there, prescription drugs be the deadliest. They’ve caused more overdoses each year than any other drug, and account for over 38 percent of overdose fatalities.

Unfortunately, while alcohol use has been on the decline, youth overdoses from prescription medications have steadily risen since 1999. From 1999 to 2001, the death rate per 100,000 residents was 3.1. From 2005 to 2007, this rate increased to 6.6. Between 2011 and 2013 that number rose again to 7.3.

This seems to be because teens believe that prescription drugs are safer, and it’s also, partly, because they’re easier to get. Where do teens get their prescription medications? Our survey indicates that a portion of us (30 percent) already know the answer: Teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from family and friends. In fact, over 60 percent say their main source of prescription medications is a medicine cabinet in their home.

Recovery and Treatment

Substance abuse doesn’t have to be fatal. There are treatment programs for not only adults but also teens. Addiction is a recognized brain disorder and, according to the National Institutes of Health, Drug dependence should be insured, treated, and evaluated like other chronic illnesses. Getting help and getting it quickly can mean the difference between life or death for some drug users.

When we asked our respondents what percentage of those aged 12 to19 have received treatment for drug abuse, 33 percent answered correctly. Sadly, only 10 percent of youth actually receive treatment.

Why are so few kids getting help? A National Institute on Drug Abuse survey says, Overwhelmingly, the most common reason teens cited for not receiving treatment was that they did not perceive a need for it (34 percent said that they were not ready to stop using the drugs, and 22 percent reported that they did not want others to find out about their problem.)

Perception vs. Reality

Based on the findings above, our understanding of teen drug use and the pressures associated with drug use is hit or miss. There are some aspects of youth substance abuse that people tend to know more about, and others that could use more open communication. In addition, we know that youth drug use is a problem, but much more education on the topic in general is needed for us to fully understand the scope of the problem, the role played by things like social media and pop culture, and how we can help.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, help is available. Call us for a free and confidential consult at or visit to learn more about treatment programs. Our treatment support specialists are here to listen and help you find the best substance abuse treatment for you or your teenager.


We presented 2,000 Americans with various questions about their perceptions of youth drug use. Using their answers, we were able to compare their perceptions with statistics provided by various sources so we could gauge America’s awareness of youth drug use.

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