Being a teenager isn’t easy. Teen years may involve personal exploration and self-discovery, but they also mark the awkward but necessary transition from adolescence to adulthood. During this journey, teens are faced with more responsibilities, more decision-making, and more pressure to succeed than ever before.

It comes as little surprise, then, that teens are statistically more likely than the general population to dabble in drug and alcohol use.

teen partying

Teenagers in the U.S. have been experimenting with drugs and alcohol for decades. In fact, many people view experimentation as a right of passage for young adults.

However, drug use is dangerous for teenagers. Teens who use drugs have a higher likelihood of hindering their physical and mental development. Even worse, those who use drugs during their teenage years are much more likely than others to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) in adulthood.

The Teenage Demographic

For the most part, this particular demographic spans from the middle of junior high (i.e., middle school) to the beginning of college. After all, a teenager is a young person between 13 and 19 years of age.

The average 13-year-old is in 7th grade, while most 19-year-olds are in their freshman or sophomore year of college.

It is worth noting that much of the information in this article is based on statistical findings that focus on teenagers in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade. In other words, much of the information provided focuses on teenagers ranging from age 14 to 18: high schoolers.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Among Teens

According to years worth of various studies, most people who use drugs begin doing so during their teenage years. Still, some substances are more popular than others among teens.

The most common drugs used by teens ranging from 8th grade to 12th grade include both legal and illegal substances such as alcohol, marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids, illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine, and even prescription drugs.

Teens and Alcohol Use

Although alcohol use among teens has been on the decline in recent years, it is still the most popular addictive substance among teenagers. This is partially because alcohol is a legal and widely available substance. Most teens get it through older friends or family members.

According to data from the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, nearly 20 percent of 10th graders (high school sophomores aged 15 to 16) and more than 33 percent of 12th graders (high school seniors aged 17 to 18) admit to using alcohol in the month before the survey.

teen drinking

Moreover, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah, teens who start drinking alcohol by the age of 13 are more than four times more likely to develop alcoholism as an adult than those who begin drinking at 21, the legal drinking age in the U.S.

Teens and Marijuana Use

Although alcohol remains the primary favorite among teens, marijuana use among teenagers has been slowly increasing.

In fact, according to NIDA for Teens, almost 14 percent of 8th graders have tried marijuana at least once by 2018. Moreover, approximately 0.7 percent of 8th graders used marijuana daily in 2018.

The same report also shows that 43.6 percent of 12th graders have experimented with marijuana at least once, while just over 22 percent admitted to using marijuana every month. Of the 22 percent, 5.8 percent of 12th graders smoked marijuana daily in 2018.

The growing popularity of marijuana among teens is partially due to the ill-conceived notion that marijuana, being a plant-based substance, is not harmful.

The 2017 Monitoring the Future survey shows that 71 percent of 12th graders don’t believe that marijuana use is dangerous. However, it is important to note that marijuana, like alcohol, can cause severe and irreversible damage, especially since the brain does not reach full development until around age 25.

Teens and Synthetic Cannabinoid Use

Synthetic cannabinoids, also called K2 or Spice, produce effects similar to marijuana. However, they are two very different substances.

The main differences between natural marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids are their chemical compositions. Natural cannabis comes from a plant, while cannabinoids are human-made. In fact, the properties of synthetic cannabinoids vary from batch to batch.

In other words, the ingredients of most synthetic cannabinoids are unknown outside of the labs in which they are created. This, of course, poses a danger to users.

Unfortunately, synthetic cannabinoids are becoming more and more popular due to their widespread availability and the misconception that they are safe to use. This is especially true for teenage users.

According to one Monitoring the Future study, 3.5 percent of 12th graders, 2.9 percent of 10th graders, and 1.6 percent of 8th graders used synthetic marijuana at least once in 2018.

Teens and Illicit Drug Use

Outside of marijuana use, illicit drug use is actually quite low among teenagers. In fact, an average of 2.4 percent of 12th graders nationwide had used an illicit drug other than marijuana in 2017.

According to the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey regarding past-year drug use trends, 3.7 percent of 12th graders used synthetic cannabinoids, 3.3 percent used hallucinogens, 2.6 percent used MDMA, and 1.5 percent used inhalants.

teen addiction

Surprisingly, cocaine and heroin use was also low. In fact, only 2.7 percent of 12th graders used cocaine in 2017, while 0.4 percent used heroin.

Fortunately, the numbers are continuing to decrease.

Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse

While alcohol and marijuana remain the most popular drugs among teens, more and more high schoolers are also beginning to experiment with prescription and over-the-counter medications. In fact, most teens who experiment with drugs tend to favor prescriptions over illicit drugs since they, like alcohol, are both legal and easy to obtain.

For the most part, there are three types of prescription medications that have a high potential for abuse among teenagers. These are stimulants, tranquilizers (benzodiazepines), painkillers (opioids), and sedatives (barbiturates).

Adderall, a stimulant that treats attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is the most abused prescription drug among high schoolers in the U.S. In 2017 alone, 5.5 percent of all 12th graders nationwide abused Adderall.

That same year, 4.7 percent of 12th graders abused tranquilizers, 4.2 percent abused opioids, 2.9 percent abused sedatives, and 1.3 percent abused Ritalin (another stimulant that also treats ADHD).

It is important to note that, although they are both central nervous system depressants, sedatives and tranquilizers are not the same. Sedatives are used to induce feelings of calm or sleepiness, and tranquilizers are used to reduce feelings of tension or anxiety.

Contributing Factors for Addiction Among Teens

There are many reasons why teens may turn to drug use. Some just want to experiment, while others may be using drugs or alcohol to cope with the pressures of teenage life.

Peer Pressure

This is the most well-known factor that contributes to the rates of drug use among teens.

The way that teens think, feel, and see the world around them is largely influenced by their peers. So, although they weigh the pros and cons of any decision or activity in the same way adults do, teens are more likely to act in a way that impresses their peers.

In 2012, one survey conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA, now the Center on Addiction) found that 75 percent of teens are inspired to use drugs like alcohol and marijuana after seeing photographs of peers doing so on various social media platforms.

Academic Pressure

An often under-cited contributing factor of drug or alcohol use among teens is academic pressure.

Since they do not have adult responsibilities like full-time employment, most teenagers treat their time in school as their primary focus in life. After all, teens are in school for three-quarters of the year. It is where they spend most of their time, often with their friends. Plus, those in high school have to start thinking about their higher education and their future career goals.

So, students who struggle in school, whether socially or academically, may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or even inadequacy.

Others may use drugs to try to enhance their performance in school. In fact, one reason why stimulant abuse is so high among teenagers is that many of them believe it helps them stay focused during their studies.

High school athletes abuse drugs and alcohol for many of these same reasons.

Access to Drugs or Alcohol

Naturally, greater access to certain drugs increases the likelihood of their use.

As previously mentioned, illicit drug use among teenagers is declining. Part of the reason for this is because they are not as accessible as other substances, like alcohol or prescription drugs, both of which are legal.

Even marijuana is more accessible than other drugs since it is legal for recreational use in 11 states and medical use in 33. In fact, high school seniors in any of these states are more likely than their counterparts in other states to smoke marijuana, use vaping products, or consume marijuana edibles.

Drug dealing on or near school grounds is another factor that contributes to the accessibility of some drugs for teens.

According to one survey from the Center on Addiction, roughly half of all U.S. high school students know a student who sells drugs at their school. Moreover, 52 percent of teens have reported that they know of places in or near their school where their classmates can drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, or use other drugs during school hours.

Other Contributing Factors

While the factors listed above have a substantial influence on the drug use trends among teens, there are other reasons why teens may use drugs.

Some of the more common risk factors that can increase the likelihood of both drug use and subsequent addiction include:

  • Poor social skills
  • Financial stress (e.g., poverty)
  • Little to no parental supervision
  • Conflict at home (i.e., coming from a broken home)
  • Regular exposure to open substance use or addiction in someone else
  • A family history of or genetic predisposition to substance use and addiction
  • Psychological factors  (e.g., stress, high impulsivity, sensation seeking, etc.)
  • Environmental factors (e.g., physical, mental, or emotional abuse or trauma)

Overall, mental health is an important factor in the rates of drug use and addiction among teens.

Mental Health Disorders Among Teens

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20 percent of teens aged 13 to 18 are diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. In fact, half of all people who develop a chronic mental illness do so by age 14.

Generally speaking, most teenagers who struggle with a mental health disorder tend to have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or some combination of the three. Other mental health disorders can appear in teens, too, but these are among the most common diagnoses.

Teens and Anxiety

Anxiety is sometimes written off by parents and teachers as normal behavior for teenagers. After all, feeling anxious about certain things is just part of becoming an adult.

However, according to data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), 31.9 percent of teens aged 13 to 18 struggle with an anxiety disorder. Of them, 8.3 percent have a severe impairment.

One way to distinguish an anxiety disorder from typical teenage growing pains is by looking for symptoms that hinder a teen’s ability to function normally. These may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Impaired concentration
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
  • Fast heart rate (i.e., tachycardia)
  • Rapid breathing(i.e., hyperventilation)
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • An unrelenting sense of danger, panic, or doom

Teens who struggle with an anxiety disorder are statistically more likely to use alcohol, sedatives, and other central nervous system (CNS) depressants to cope with these symptoms. Self-medicating and prolonged use, of course, can lead to addiction.

Teens and Depression

Depression is a common mood disorder, especially for teenagers.

Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that roughly 3.2 million teens under the age of 18 had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. In other words, 13.3 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17 struggled with depression in as recent as 2017.

Teens who struggle with depression often appear sad or unhappy, but depression can also present itself in other ways. In fact, teens who have depression may lash out at their loved ones, or avoid them altogether in favor of self-isolation.

Common signs of depression among teens include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Pessimism
  • Anxiousness
  • Restlessness
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances (e.g., insomnia)
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in beloved hobbies or activities
  • Cognitive impairment (e.g., trouble concentrating or making decisions)
  • Feelings of guilt, emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness
  • Persistent physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, digestive issues, and body aches)

Teens who struggle with depression are more likely to self-medicate with stimulants than with any other kind of drug.

Teens and Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive disorder, is characterized by radical and often unexpected mood swings. Those who struggle with this disorder generally have bouts of happiness and productivity, followed by extreme depression or indifference.

Due to the nature of this disorder, it can be challenging for parents and teachers to distinguish typical teenage mood swings from bipolar disorder. After all, teenagers have their ups and downs.

However, this particular disorder is more common among teens than most people might think.

Data from the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A) shows that 2.9 percent of teenagers aged 13 to 18 in the U.S. struggle with bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime. Of this, the vast majority of them (2.6 percent) have a severe impairment, meaning that the disorder regularly disrupted their daily routines.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder are very similar to those of depressive disorders. In fact, the majority of people who struggle with bipolar disorder are first misdiagnosed as having depression.

It’s also worth noting that teens with anxiety have a higher-than-average risk of also developing bipolar disorder, according to both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Since extreme shifts in mood characterize bipolar disorder, teens who struggle with it may turn to depressants, stimulants, or even both to cope with their symptoms. For example, a teenager having a manic episode might smoke marijuana to calm down. Alternatively, a teenager struggling with a depressive episode may abuse antidepressants to feel better.

The Teenage Demographic and Co-Occurring Disorders (Dual Diagnosis)

Many people who have a substance use disorder also develop other mental illnesses, just as many people who are diagnosed with mental illness are often diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), DrugFacts

It isn’t unusual for teenagers to struggle with both a mental health disorder and addiction simultaneously. This is called dual diagnosis. According to NIDA, dual diagnosis occurs in more than half of all drug users. This, of course, includes the teenage demographic.

Increasing Demand for Drug and Alcohol Rehab for Teens

Although these statistics are shocking, the good news is that overall drug use among teens is actually on the decline. In fact, according to NIDA, drug and alcohol use among teens is significantly lower than in previous years.

This is an excellent start to addressing the issue of teen drug abuse and addiction. Still, teens who use or abuse addictive substances have a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) when they are adults. As such, it is imperative for treatment facilities to address both the mental health disorder and the addiction concurrently. Doing so can prevent further complications from developing later.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment Options for Teens

Teens with SUD may be struggling with an adult issue, but their emotional and psychological needs could not be more different than those of adults. The treatment facilities that recognize this and offer specialized programs to teens in recovery tend to have greater success in getting their patients sober.

teen help

For the most part, teens are encouraged to participate in all four primary levels of addiction treatment and care, which include:

  • Drug and alcohol detox
  • Inpatient (residential) treatment
  • Intensive outpatient treatment and partial hospitalization
  • Outpatient treatment

The primary difference between rehab for teenagers and rehab for adults is that teen programs tend to separate their patients by gender, age, or both during each stage of treatment.

Moreover, most programs allow teens to continue their work in school during the treatment process.

Overall, specialized teen programs are designed to address addiction, dual diagnosis, and ongoing recovery, all the while building a healthier environment for patients and loved ones alike.

Outcomes for Teens in Recovery

For more information about rehab and drug recovery options for teenagers aged 13 to 19, contact us here or call us at (833) 369-6443.


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