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How Teens Are Exposed to Drugs and Alcohol

The infamous teenage years are prime time for trying new things and asserting one’s independence. As teens transition into adulthood, they often become tempted by adult activities. They want to follow their parents’ lead, try things their friends have already done, and establish their own identities. Drugs and alcohol frequently become involved in this mix.

Many teens turn to marijuana, prescription drugs, club drugs, alcohol, or other substances as a means of coping with stress, relating to their peers, and rebelling against authority. A 2015 study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicated that more than 58% of 12th graders had consumed alcohol and nearly 24% had used illicit drugs in the past year.1

Teenagers and young adults get involved with alcohol and drugs for many reasons, including:

  • Curiosity: They want to know what it feels like to be drunk, intoxicated, or high.
  • Peer pressure: Their friends are doing it or pressuring them to do the same.
  • Acceptance: Their parents or role models are doing it and they want to feel accepted by those they look up to.
  • Defiance: They want to rebel against rules placed on them.
  • Risk-taking behaviors: They want to send out a call for help.
  • Thrill-seeking activities: They want to experience something other than numbness.
  • Boredom: They feel there is nothing else to do, and trying drugs or alcohol gives them a feeling of excitement.
  • Independence: They want to make their own decisions and assert their own independence.
  • Pleasure: They want to feel good. Teens are dealing with a heavy mix of emotions, and drugs can help numb any pain and make them feel better even when times are tough.

Peer Pressure in Social Circles

At any age, people want to be liked and accepted by those around them. This is especially true for adolescents and teens who are going through a process of transformation from childhood into adulthood. They are still discovering who they are, and through the confusion that often causes, want all the more to be accepted by their peers.

Imagine you find yourself with someone you trust and admire. You are handed a bong, a bottle, or some pills and offered a place in the crowd. Even the most upstanding student may be tempted to try…just this once. Teens give into peer pressure for many reasons, including:
Peer pressure can be a cause of teenage drug and alcohol abuse

  • Fear of rejection.
  • Not wanting to be made fun of.
  • Not wanting to lose a friend.
  • Not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings.
  • The desire to appear grown up.
  • The desire to appear in control.
  • Not having a clear picture of what they want.
  • Not understanding how to avoid or handle a situation.

In an attempt to understand why teens are so likely to give into peer pressure, NIDA conducted a research study on how teens think about both risks and rewards associated with their decisions. For this study, researchers monitored the brain activity of teen drivers. They found that teens who were driving with a friend in the car were more likely to take risks, such as running a yellow light, than those who were driving alone.2

The study also showed teens were much more likely to make risky driving decisions with friends in the car than adults in the exact same situation. Where adults tend to consider both the risks and rewards of their behavior, teens tend to focus mostly on the reward while ignoring the risk. This type of thinking may contribute to peer pressure because teens are more likely to engage in behavior if they feel rewarded by peer approval or acceptance.2

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Parental Influence on Children

Parental examples of using drugs and alcohol can be even more traumatic than peer pressure. Parents are role models, whether or not they choose to be, and while few mothers and fathers hand their children illicit substances, many make statements and take actions that insinuate using drugs is the grown-up thing to do.

Manufacturing, selling, possessing, or taking drugs can send the message that drugs and alcohol are okay. Some parents try to hide their stash or use only when their children are not around. But many times the effect is virtually the same as if they had become high or drunk out in the open.

On the other hand, drinking is something that isn’t often hidden. A couple of beers or a few glasses of wine are socially acceptable for adults. And while a few drinks may not cause any harm to the parent or child, they can send a loud message to the teenager that it is perfectly normal, peaking a teen’s curiosity.

Kids inevitably find out about the highs of drugs or alcohol and may experiment with them in an effort to achieve those highs. Teenagers living with parents who use alcohol or drugs may have direct access to substances kept in the home. If this becomes problematic, seek out help from a trained professional.

The Impact of the Media

Our society frequently, and sometimes inadvertently, portrays alcohol consumption and drug-taking in a positive light. Many movies, television shows, advertisements, and other forms of mass media show young people using and enjoying substances without negative consequences.

Teenage boys watching media with potential influence on drug and alcohol usePopular celebrities, athletes, and other well-known people, whom teens look up to, also openly discuss their alcohol and drug use, which may influence teens to want to try alcohol or drugs as it seems to be normal behavior. They want to fit in or try it to experience the high for themselves.3

Adolescents and teens are great consumers of television and films. According to research, adolescents, aged 11 to 18, watch on average more than 20 hours of television each week. Approximately 70% of television programming has references to alcohol use, although underage drinking is depicted far less often.4

Still, teens are exposed to alcohol and drug references constantly through television and film. A study of 1,533 9th-grade students revealed that for every hour increase in television viewing, a teen was at a 9% greater risk of alcohol consumption over the following 18 months.4  

Another burgeoning issue concerning teen exposure to drugs and alcohol is social media. Adolescents and teens are constantly bombarded with information on social media and are easily exposed to the rewards of using drugs, while not receiving as much information about the risks.

A recent study conducted by NIDA examined a popular pro-cannabis Twitter account. Researchers found that only 10% of the content shared on this account addressed the risks associated with marijuana use. Of the account’s many followers, 70% of them were under the age of 19.5

It is important that those working in teen drug and alcohol use prevention work to spread the word about the consequences of drug use, such as cognitive impairments, the dangers of driving under the influence, developing physical dependence and addiction, as well as social and legal problems.

Resources for Support and Treatment

Teens who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and dependence do not have to suffer alone. There are several treatment options available, many of which are designed exclusively for teens and the unique challenges they face. Some of the many treatment options available to teens facing addiction include: 6

  • Medically assisted detox facilities: Detox centers help teens slowly taper off drugs and help ease the symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Individual or group counseling: Addresses the psychological issues related to addiction, as well as helps implement new, healthier behaviors and coping strategies for dealing with stress.
  • 12-step programs: 12-step programs are a form of support group that provide a structured path toward recovery in the form of the 12 steps. There are many 12-step groups designed specifically for adolescents and teens struggling with addiction.
  • Inpatient rehabilitation: Inpatient treatment takes place in a residential facility for a period typically ranging from 30 to 90 days—sometimes longer in more severe cases. Treatment usually includes some combination of detox, counseling, therapy, support groups, 12-step programs, medication maintenance, and in some cases, alternative therapies.
  • Outpatient rehabilitation: Outpatient treatment usually consists of the same treatment modalities as inpatient rehabs, except treatment takes place on a part-time basis while the patient continues to live in their home, and may still work and go to school during treatment.
  • Dual diagnosis: Dual diagnosis addresses and treats the addiction itself, as well as any co-occurring mental health disorders teens may face. This includes anxiety, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
  • Teen rehab: There are many inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation centers that are designed exclusively for teens. There are also recovery high schools where teens can go to high school and earn their diploma, while simultaneously working on their recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism.
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