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New Report Finds Positive Trends in Youth Substance Use – Young people are using drugs less often, but mental health remains a concern.

By Stephen Gray Wallace, featured in Psychology Today

Since 1986, educators and public health proponents have used social norming theory to reduce youth risk behaviors. This theory holds that the behavior of young people is heavily influenced by their perception of what the norm is among their peers with regard to behaviors such as underage drinking and other drug use.

Not surprisingly, those perceptions can widely miss the mark. When “real” norms are revealed, it is held, risk reduction occurs (LaMorte, 2019). For example, in a six-year Teens Today study by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, significant discrepancies appeared between what teens reported their friends were doing and how many of them actually were engaging in the behaviors (Wallace, 2008).

New Data on Youth Substance Use

Also bucking a now common narrative about substance use during the pandemic was a December 15 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It states, “In line with continued long-term declines in the use of many illicit substances among adolescents previously reported by the Monitoring the Future survey, these findings represent the largest one-year decrease in overall illicit drug use reported since the survey began in 1975” (NIDA, 2021).

NIDA director Nora Volkow, M.D., said in a statement, “‘We have never seen such dramatic decreases in drug use among teens in just a one-year period. These data are unprecedented and highlight one unexpected potential consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused seismic shifts in the day-to-day lives of adolescents… Moving forward, it will be crucial to identify the pivotal elements of this past year that contributed to decreased drug use—whether related to drug availability, family involvement, differences in peer pressure, or other factors—and harness them to inform future prevention efforts’” (NIH, 2021).

Specifically, the report finds decreases in several drug-related behaviors, beginning with alcohol use.

Alcohol Use Trends in Youth

The percentage of students who reported using alcohol within the past year decreased significantly for 10th and 12th grade students and remained stable for eighth-graders.

  • Eighth graders: 17.2 percent reported using alcohol in the past year in 2021, remaining fairly steady compared to 20.5 percent in 2020 (not a statistically significant decrease).
  • 10th graders: 28.5 percent reported using alcohol in the past year in 2021, a statistically significant decrease from 40.7 percent in 2020.
  • 12th graders: 46.5 percent reported using alcohol in the past year in 2021, a statistically significant decrease from 55.3 percent in 2020.

A reduction in alcohol use by young people is heartening news, given that alcohol use by teens affects still-developing cognitive abilities and impairs memory and learning. Teens who drink are more likely to commit or be the victim of violence (including sexual assault) and to experience depression and suicidal thoughts; alcohol-related automobile crashes kill thousands of teens each year and injure millions more (Wallace, 2005).

Of course, alcohol is only one of a number of illicit substances that pose a threat to young people (NIDA, 2021).

Marijuana Trends in Youth

The percentage of students who reported using marijuana (in all forms, including smoking and vaping) within the past year decreased significantly for eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students.

  • Eighth graders: 7.1 percent reported using marijuana in the past year in 2021, compared to 11.4 percent in 2020.
  • 10th graders: 17.3 percent reported using marijuana in the past year in 2021, compared to 28.0 percent in 2020.
  • 12th graders: 30.5 percent reported using marijuana in the past year in 2021, compared to 35.2 percent in 2020.

Vaping Nicotine Trends in Youth

Vaping continues to be the predominant method of nicotine consumption among young people, though the percentage of students who reported vaping nicotine within the past year decreased significantly for eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students.

  • Eighth graders: 12.1 percent reported vaping nicotine in the past year in 2021, compared to 16.6 percent in 2020.
  • 10th graders: 19.5 percent reported vaping nicotine in the past year in 2021, compared to 30.7 percent in 2020.
  • 12th graders: 26.6 percent reported vaping nicotine in the past year in 2021, compared to 34.5 percent in 2020.

Other Illicit Drug Use in Youth

The percentage of students who reported using any illicit drug (other than marijuana) within the past year decreased significantly for eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students.

  • Eighth graders: 4.6 percent reported using any illicit drug (other than marijuana) in the past year in 2021, compared to 7.7 percent in 2020.
  • 10th graders: 5.1 percent reported using any illicit drug (other than marijuana) in the past year in 2021, compared to 8.6 percent in 2020.
  • 12th graders: 7.2 percent reported using any illicit drug (other than marijuana) in the past year in 2021, compared to 11.4 percent in 2020.

Trends in Mental Health

Not surprising were the results of mental health questions: “The study found that students across all age-groups reported moderate increases in feelings of boredom, anxiety, depression, loneliness, worry, difficulty sleeping, and other negative mental health indicators since the beginning of the pandemic” (NIDA, 2021).

An additional recent study also chronicled mental health fallout from COVID-19, as follows (Total Brain, 2021).

  • 48 percent of high school and college students are at risk of general anxiety.
  • 45 percent are at risk of social anxiety.
  • 39 percent are at risk of PTSD.

Another take on mental health and other concerns during the pandemic was illustrated in Ernst & Young’s 2021 Gen Z Segmentation Study. It found the following among individuals born between 1997 and 2007 (EY, 2021).

  • Mental health: 67 percent are moderately to extremely worried about their physical and mental health, with 42 percent frequently feeling anxious or depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic. That anxiety is not evenly distributed from a gender perspective, with more than half (51 percent) of girls and women feeling anxious or depressed compared to only 34 percent of boys and men. During the pandemic, nearly a fifth (19 percent) of Gen Z report rarely or never receiving the social and emotional support they need.
  • Skepticism: 60 percent say most people can’t be trusted, and 48 percent say most of the time people are just looking out for themselves. Trust may be improving though, as these levels are slightly lower than in 2019, which found 67 percent and 52 percent, respectively. Relatedly, 57 percent feel life will be the same or worse for future generations.
  • Basic needs insecurity: 69 percent of Gen Z worried about running out of food since the onset of COVID-19, and over a fifth (21 percent) worried about it most of the time; notably, 28 percent lost their job, or someone in their family lost a job in the same time period.

While mental health issues remain stubbornly persistent, good news can be celebrated on the youth substance use front. A happy new year, indeed.

References

EY. (2021). EY releases Gen Z survey revealing businesses must rethink their ‘Plan Z’. Ernst & Young, LLC. November 4, 2021. https://www.ey.com/en_us/news/2021/11/ey-releases-gen-z-survey-revealin… (28 Dec. 2021).

LaMorte, W. (2019). Social norms theory. Behavioral Change Models. September 9, 2019. Boston University School of Public Health. https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/mph-modules/sb/behavioralchangetheories… (28 Dec. 2021).

NIDA. (2021). Percentage of adolescents reporting drug use decreased significantly in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic endured. National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 15, 2021. https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2021/12/percentage-… (28 Dec. 2021).

NIH. (2021). Percentage of adolescents reporting drug use decreased significantly in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic endured. National Institutes of Health. December 15, 2021. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/percentage-adolescents-re… (28 Dec. 2021).

Total Brain. (2021). High prevalence of mental health risk amid COVID pandemic taking a serious toll on U.S. students’ cognition. February 24, 2021. https://www.totalbrain.com/high-prevalence-of-mental-health-risk-amid-c… (28 Dec. 2021).

Wallace, S. (2005). Getting real about teen drinking, part 3. The Boston Globe. January 15, 2005. http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/20… (28 Dec. 2021).

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing. 2008.

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