According to recent public health research, substance use among American teens is evolving in ways both complex and contradictory. On the one hand, experts celebrate reductions in the use of a range of substances: From heroin to hallucinogens, teens are now less likely to experiment with many drugs than in decades past. Simultaneously, however, new threats appeal to the country’s youth. Parents voice particular concerns about the prevalence of e-cigarettes, which have surpassed tobacco in their appeal to teens.
In this project, we set out to explore how the nation’s high school teens are truly using drugs and alcohol, presenting hard data behind developments both encouraging and alarming. Utilizing information from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), we analyzed trends in youth substance use between 2011 and 2017. Our findings present patterns of substance use in a state of flux, moving toward a future of uncertain improvement. To find out how the country’s teens are consuming substances, keep reading.
Our data indicate declines in the percentage of teens trying several substances, including some commonly associated with high school experimentation. Indeed, the percentage of teens who tried marijuana declined nearly 11 percent between 2011 and 2017, an encouraging sign given concerns that the drug’s legalization in some states will lead to a spike in teen use. Alcohol experimentation dropped even more significantly, falling 23 percent over the same period. While public health officials find these statistics encouraging, they still find room for improvement in rates of teen binge drinking, which can negatively impact neurological development during adolescence.
Cigarette use also declined by more than 35 percent, but that trend may be attributable, in part, to the arrival of an alternative. Fueled by social media subculture, teen e-cigarette use has horrified parents and educators and even prompted a landmark Surgeon General’s Report in 2016. Interestingly, however, our data suggest that teen vaping actually subsided slightly between 2015 and 2017. To further this trend, lawmakers have suggested banning flavors that might appeal to teens; studies indicate teens are more likely to use fruity e-liquid varieties.
Teens frequently experiment with multiple substances, but what is the typical order in which they are introduced to various drugs? Regarding marijuana and cigarettes, for example, a plurality of teens (37 percent) tried them at the same age. But nearly 21 percent consumed cannabis before cigarettes, and a similar percentage tried cigarettes first. While studies suggest marijuana and tobacco use are closely correlated for teens, it seems there’s no prevailing script in which young people try one before moving on to the other.
When comparing alcohol and cigarette use, the significant majority of teens tried alcohol either before or at roughly the same time as tobacco. Just 20 percent said they tried drinking after smoking cigarettes at an earlier age. The same dynamic held true with alcohol and marijuana, with about 17 percent of adolescents saying they smoked pot before experimenting with booze. If alcohol does serve as a gateway to other drugs, this phenomenon could have a neurological basis. Recent animal studies indicate that alcohol may prime the brain to be more receptive to other potentially addictive substances, including cocaine.
Vape companies often assert that their products can help smokers shake their dependence on combustible cigarettes, but our findings suggest many teens begin vaping directly. In fact, more than a quarter of teens who tried vaping had never smoked a cigarette before. Between the 9th and 11th grades, the percentage of adolescents who had vaped before increased steadily. Interestingly, however, high school seniors were less likely than juniors to have tried vaping before. This finding suggests that some seniors in 2017 missed the full temptation of this trend; perhaps vaping was still relatively rare when they began high school.
As we mentioned above, vaping rates were actually lower in 2017 than in 2015; despite recent press coverage of “JUULing,” things may be improving on this front. When asked how often they had vaped in the last 30 days, 7 percent of teens said one to two days in 2015. In 2017, fewer than 2 percent said the same. Among health researchers, the causes of this decline remain unclear. Some suggest their novelty has simply worn off for teens, while others say anti-vaping ad campaigns could be having a positive impact.
A Gender Gap in Getting High
Patterns of substance use differ significantly among men and women: By some estimates, for instance, nearly twice as many American males struggle with alcohol dependency. According to our data, male teenagers have historically been more likely to experiment with cannabis than their female counterparts. In recent years, however, this gap in use has narrowed. In 2017, female adolescents reporting having tried marijuana at rates roughly equivalent to their male peers.
This change was particularly evident for high school juniors: Among 11th graders, females were more likely to have tried marijuana than males. Among freshmen and sophomores, however, rates were roughly even. Increased pot use among women isn’t limited to teens, however. According to one recent large-scale study, rates of female marijuana consumption virtually doubled between 1984 and 2015.
Academics at Risk
Academic performance is closely linked to many parents’ anxieties about their teenage children experimenting with drugs: Can a teen get high and get good grades simultaneously? Our findings suggest that while drug use and good grades aren’t mutually exclusive, they are certainly negatively correlated. Relative to students who used no substances, for example, students who used pot, alcohol, cigarettes, and vape products in the last 30 days were much less likely to get A’s – and much more likely to earn D’s and F’s.
Even using a single substance seemed to increase the risk of poor academic performance. Of the students who used only marijuana in the last 30 days, less than 10 percent earned “mostly A’s.” Conversely, about 30 percent of teens who used no substances belonged to this top-performing category. Teens who used only alcohol, however, performed only slightly worse than their abstinent peers overall.
Rite of Passage or Real Problem?
Our data present encouraging declines in substance use among young Americans; recent years have yielded improvement few experts could have anticipated. But while these positive trends should be celebrated, our optimism must be tempered by an awareness that other risk factors may arise in the years to come. In many ways, our findings indicate the need for ongoing attention to the experiences of high school students. Parents, researchers, and legislators cannot assume that the challenges teens face today mirror their own at that age. Rather, their approaches must be driven by hard data of the kind presented in this project.
If you know a teen struggling with dependence on drugs or alcohol, you may need help navigating the ever-evolving field of substance use treatment. With so many variations of care available, it can be difficult to select the best kind of treatment for a loved one. At ProjectKnow, we believe no one should struggle to find help alone. Let our team of experts help you locate treatment options of the highest quality, so you can give your loved one the best possible odds of getting well.
For this analysis, we tapped into the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, also known as YRBSS, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here, we collected YRBSS data from 2011 to 2017 to understand how the youth is experimenting with marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. More information on YRBSS data, collection methods, or samples sizes can be found at cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/index.htm.
We split the students into groups earning “mostly A’s” and “mostly B’s, C’s, D’s, or F’s” to approximate having an equal sample of both groups.
Fair Use Statement
Please help spread the word about high school substance use by sharing this content! This is a serious subject matter and we hope that this will make people more aware about substance use among American teens. In that spirit, you’re welcome to use our content on your own site or social media for noncommercial use. If you do, please include a link back to this page to let your audience explore the project in its entirety.