Myths and Realities
Reprinted from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2), pp. 8-9
Alcohol and other drug use by young people is a frequent concern among adults. Most people know someone who has suffered problems from misuse of alcohol or other drugs. They worry that any use during the teen years will lead to addiction.
There is a widespread perception that drugs are easier to get now than ever before, even in school, and that more teens are trying drugs at younger and younger ages. Every so often, media stories raise the alarm about an epidemic of illegal drug use among teenagers, whether of cannabis (marijuana), ecstasy or crystal meth.
Are these perceptions accurate, or are they myths? How common is substance use among adolescents, and is it increasing? Should we be worried about drug use among teens? Why do they use drugs anyway?
The BC Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS),1 conducted in high schools by the McCreary Centre Society every five years, can help provide answers to these questions.
Is there an ‘epidemic’ of substance use among teens?
Contrary to popular perception, alcohol and other drug use is not universal among youth in high school; nor is it increasing.
The drug most commonly used by teens is still alcohol. Just over half of adolescents in school have ever tried alcohol (57%), and around 38% had used alcohol in the past month—usually just a few times, and most likely on weekends. Boys and girls are just as likely to use alcohol.
Marijuana is the next most commonly used drug, with just over one in three teens having ever tried marijuana (37%), and only about 20% having used marijuana in the past month. Among those who use marijuana, however, boys are twice as likely to be recent or regular users compared to girls.
Other illegal drugs, like cocaine or crystal meth, are far less common among youth in school. Indeed, teens are more likely to report ever having tried psilocybin mushrooms (13%), or someone else’s prescription drugs (9%) than they are to report trying cocaine (5%) or amphetamines like crystal meth (4%). And only about 1% have ever tried heroin or injected a drug. Fewer than one in five have ever tried any illegal drug other than alcohol or marijuana.
Is substance use by teens increasing? According to the BC AHS, most substance use has been declining over the past several years. For example, in 1992, 65% of teens had ever tried alcohol; this dropped to 57% in 2003. Teens tend to wait until they are older to try alcohol or other drugs. Only a third of 13-year-olds have ever tried alcohol and about 15% have tried marijuana. Among 17-year-olds, it is more common: more than three out of four have tried alcohol (78%) and 55% have tried marijuana.
No epidemic, but there are harms and concerns
Most young people who use alcohol or other drugs during their teen years do not have substance use problems and do not end up with abuse problems as adults either. If, however, a young teen is already using alcohol or other drugs, it can be worrisome. Youth who begin alcohol or drug use at young ages are more likely to develop substance abuse problems as they get older.2 Also, if an adolescent you know has used illegal drugs such as crack or cocaine, which is uncommon among teens in general, you might have cause for concern. Teens who use the rarer illegal drugs, or use multiple different drugs, are at higher risk for substance abuse problems.
Long before any dependence or abuse might develop, excessive alcohol or drug use can cause harms such as:
injuries and car accidents while drunk
conflicts with family or frienda
problems with school
About one in four youth report at least one negative consequence in the past year from drinking or drug use. Students who report frequent use of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs (three or more times in the past month) are far more likely to report negative consequences than those who have used but not frequently. For example, 16% of frequent users got injured in the past year because of their drinking or drug use, while only 5% of those who don’t use frequently got injured.
Binge drinking (five or more drinks within a few hours) appears to be fairly common among youth who drink alcohol, with nearly half of them reporting binging at least once in the past month. Binge drinking is linked to car accidents, alcohol poisoning and unprotected sex.
Why do teens use alcohol and drugs?
Young people use alcohol and drugs for many of the same reasons adults do:
because their friends do
to feel more comfortable in social settings
sometimes to manage their moods
to cope with stress and pain in their lives
This isn’t surprising, since teens see many adults regularly drinking alcohol at family celebrations, while watching sports events and with friends in social settings. These adults may see drinking and drunkenness among young people as a part of growing up. Also, movies aimed at teens often depict alcohol or other drug use at parties as normal behaviour.
Some youth with mental health issues also use substances to help manage their symptoms. Youth with anxiety disorders, for example, may use marijuana or alcohol to become calmer. Teens with attention deficit disorder who are not on medications may use stimulants to improve their concentration.
Tonkin, R., Murphy, A., Lee, Z. et al. (2005). British Columbia youth health trends: A retrospective, 1992-2003. Vancouver: McCreary Centre Society. www.mcs.bc.ca
There is no epidemic of illegal drug use among adolescents, and substance abuse disorders are not common. And even if drugs are easier to get, this doesn’t seem to have caused an increase in use by teens.
Although many teens will try alcohol or marijuana during their teen years, parents and other adults may prevent serious problems if they set a good example. Adults can be effective role models by making their own responsible decisions around alcohol and other drug use.
About the author
Elizabeth holds a Canadian Institutes of Health Research/Public Health Agency of Canada Applied Public Health Chair in Youth Health. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia, and the Research Director for the McCreary Centre Society
McCreary Centre Society. (2004). Healthy youth development: Highlights from the 2003 Adolescent Health Survey. Vancouver: Author. www.mcs.bc.ca. Note: provincial results from the 2008 survey will be released in March 2009.
Daigneau, C.V. & Saewyc, E.M. (2006). Behavioral health problems of adolescents: Eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide. In D. Wong (Ed.), Nursing care of infants and children (8th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book.