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Addiction in teenagers

In our guide, discover when and why teens abuse substances and how you can help them seek treatment.

Last Updated: Jul 22, 2022
Addiction in teenagers

Studies estimate that around 50% of all teenagers in the U.S. have abused an illicit substance at least once. And surveys show that over one million people ages 12-17 participate in binge drinking monthly, with 25% of eighth graders reporting using alcohol at least once.¹

These statistics may be staggering, but it’s also important to know that substance abuse in teenagers may be on the decline. A 2021 survey shows that illicit drug, alcohol, and vaping use among eighth, tenth, and 12th graders are down compared to 2020 rates.² While this is hopeful information, it doesn’t take away from the fact that addiction remains a serious issue for teenagers.

This guide looks at the causes and results of teenage addiction and provides information to help prevent and treat adolescent substance abuse. If you or someone you care about needs help with addiction, read on to find some valuable resources.

Jump to:

Teen addiction facts and stats
What is addiction?
How does addiction impact teens?
Drugs
Alcohol
Smoking and vaping
When and why do teens try substances?
Addiction and the teen brain
Signs of substance use and addiction in teenagers
Teen substance use and crime
Advice for parents
Resources for teens
References

Teen addiction facts and stats

  • Around two million 12-17-year-olds in the U.S. report using drugs in the past month, with 83.88% using marijuana.
  • About 46% of teens have tried illicit drugs, and 61.5% have abused alcohol by the time they reach 12th grade.
  • 0.4% of eighth graders, 1% of tenth graders, and 2.7% of 12th graders drink daily.
  • In a 2020 survey, 788,000 teens from 12-17 met Illicit Drug Use Disorder (IDUD) criteria.¹
  • As of 2021, 17.5% of eighth graders, 29.7% of tenth graders, and 40.5% of 12th graders had tried vaping.
  • It is estimated that around 794,000 students in 8th-12th grade began vaping in 2021.²
  • Around 4,700 Americans aged 15-24 die by drug overdose in a given year.¹

What is addiction?

There are many competing notions about what constitutes addiction. Some people consider it a choice or a character defect. But for the last few decades, experts have begun redefining addiction to include its status as a medical issue that can respond to treatment.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.”³

This definition reveals that addiction, while still carrying a social stigma, is a treatable and preventable illness. It is not a failure of character or circumstance but a disease influenced by many physical, mental, and emotional factors.

How does addiction impact teens?

Because teenagers’ brains are still developing, substance use leads to addiction more often than it does in adults. Substance abuse can slow brain development and lead to teens developing mental health issues like depression.

Generally, teenagers try drugs and alcohol when they are high school age, but current statistics show that teens are trying some substances for the first time at even younger ages. For example, between 2016 and 2020, drug use among eighth graders rose 61%, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics.¹

Other surveys reveal that substance abuse during teen years leads to addiction in adulthood. Some may assume that experimenting with substances in youth will not continue into adulthood, and this is true for most young people. However, depending on the substance and its use, teens may develop addiction issues later in life.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that teens who report multiple symptoms of substance use disorder are more likely to show addiction characteristics as adults. When surveyed as teens, about 12% of respondents indicated symptoms of a severe substance use disorder. In adulthood, 60% of those respondents demonstrated at least two characteristics of substance abuse, demonstrating that they did not “grow out” of addiction but that it followed them as they aged.⁴

An American Academy of Pediatrics study shows that teens prescribed opioids were 33% more likely to abuse opioids in adulthood.⁵ One survey shows that 5.3% of 12th graders have abused opioids other than heroin at least once, with 2.4% abusing OxyContin and 1.2% abusing Vicodin.²

Teen addiction stats: 2021

Each year, NIDA puts out its Monitoring the Future survey results focusing on teen addiction issues. Their 2021 results show that illicit drug use for eighth, tenth, and 12th graders dropped between 2020 and 2021.

  • Eighth graders: down 5.4%
  • Tenth graders: down 11.7%
  • 12th graders: down 4.8%

This is the largest decrease in reported yearly substance use since the Monitoring the Future surveys began in 1975.⁶ Here are some other stats from the 2021 survey results:

  • In 2020, 20.5% of eighth graders reported alcohol use in the past year, compared to 17.2% in 2021.
  • 40.7% of tenth graders reported alcohol use in 2020, dropping to 28.5% in 2021.
  • In 2020, 55.3% of 12th graders reported alcohol use, and only 46.5% reported it in 2021.
  • Marijuana use also dropped significantly for eighth, tenth, and 12th graders between 2020 and 2021: eighth graders from 11.4% to 7.1%; tenth graders from 28% to 17.3%; and 12th graders from 35.2% to 30.5%.
  • Use of vapes also decreased: 4.5% for eighth graders, 11.2% for tenth graders, and 7.9% for 12th graders.
  • Illicit drug use also declined between 2020 and 2021, with 4.6% of eighth graders, 5.1% of tenth graders, and 7.2% of 12th graders reporting use in 2021. This is compared to 7.7%, 8.6%, and 11.4% in 2020, respectively.⁷

Drugs

According to the Monitoring the Future 2021 survey, there was a decline in the use of many drugs between 2020 and 2021 among students in the eighth, tenth, and 12th grades. Check out the charts below for more info about each drug type and its use in the previous 12 months.² The report provides extensive information on over 70 substances, but we’ve only included a select few here. Check out the full results.

Drug use among eighth graders:

  Eighth grade 2020 Eighth grade 2021 Change
Any illicit drug 15.6% 10.2% -5.4
Cocaine 0.5% 0.2% -0.3
Heroin 0.2% 0.2% 0
LSD 1.1% 0.7% -0.4
Marijuana 11.4% 7.1% -4.3
MDMA 0.8% 0.6% -0.2
Methamphetamines 0.5% 0.2% -0.3
OxyContin 0.9% 0.8% -0.1
Vicodin 0.5% 0.6% +0.1

Drug use among tenth graders:

  Tenth grade 2020 Tenth grade 2021 Change
Any illicit drug 30.4% 18.7% -11.7
Cocaine 1.1% 0.6% -0.5
Heroin 0.2% 0.1% -0.1
LSD 2.5% 1.5% -1
Marijuana 16.6% 10.1% -6.5
MDMA 1.2% 0.7% -0.5
Methamphetamines 0.3% 0.2% -0.1
OxyContin 1% 0.9% -0.1
Vicodin 0.9% 0.5% -0.4

Drug use among 12th graders:

  12th grade 2020 12th grade 2021 Change
Any illicit drug 36.8% 32% -4.8
Cocaine 2.9% 1.2% -1.7
Heroin 0.3% 0.1% -0.2
LSD 3.9% 2.5% -1.4
Marijuana 35.2% 30.5% -4.7
MDMA 1.8% 1.1% -0.7
Methamphetamines 1.4% 0.2% -1.2
OxyContin 2.4% 0.9% -1.5
Vicodin 1.2% 0.9% -0.3

Alcohol

Alcohol use was also on the decline between 2020 and 2021, with 1.8% fewer eighth graders, 9.7% fewer tenth graders, and 8.2% fewer 12th graders reporting being drunk in 2021 when compared to 2020. The charts below show how many respondents in the various grade levels indicated that they had tried different forms of alcohol in the previous year.²

Alcohol use among eighth graders:

  Eighth grade 2020 Eighth grade 2021 Change
Alcohol 20.5% 17.2% -3.3
Alcohol with caffeine 5.7% 6.2% -0.5
Beer 17.5% 11.8% -5.7
Flavored alcohol 14.7% 10.2% -4.5

Alcohol use among tenth graders:

  Tenth grade 2020 Tenth grade 2021 Change
Alcohol 40.7% 28.5% -12.2
Alcohol with caffeine 8.3% 7.4% 8.3%
Beer 30.8% 19.4% -11.4
Flavored alcohol 29.6% 18.8% -10.8

Alcohol use among 12th graders:

  12th grade 2020 12th grade 2021 Change
Alcohol 55.3% 46.5% -8.8
Alcohol with caffeine 12.3% 9.9% -2.4

*Note: The COVID-19 pandemic halted collection of 12th graders’ data in 2020, so no comparisons can be made between years for certain alcohol types.

Smoking and vaping

While vaping remains an issue with teens and adults, the survey results show that its use declined among each grade level from 2020 to 2021. Check out the chart below for more stats about smoking and tobacco use.² Data in these categories are organized differently than the drug and alcohol categories, with some substance types showing use over the past 30 days instead of the past year. These differences are indicated in the chart.

Smoking and vaping among eighth graders:

  Eighth grade 2020 Eighth grade 2021 Change
Any vaping (last 12 months) 19.2% 13.4% -5.8
Cigarettes (last 30 days) 2.2% 1.1% -1.1
Flavored cigars (last 30 days) 2.3% 1% -1.3
JUUL (last 12 months) 12.8% 6.2% -6.6
Smokeless tobacco (last 30 days) 2.3% 1.6% -0.7
Snus (last 12 months) 1.6% 1.2% -0.4

Smoking and vaping among tenth graders:

  Tenth grade 2020 Tenth grade 2021 Change
Any vaping (last 12 months) 34.6% 22.2% -12.4
Cigarettes (last 30 days) 3.2% 1.8% -1.4
Flavored cigars (last 30 days) 3% 1.5% -1.5
JUUL (last 12 months) 23.3% 9.2% -14.1
Smokeless tobacco (last 30 days) 3.5% 1.7% -1.8
Snus (last 12 months) 2.2% 1% -1.2

Smoking and vaping among 12th graders:

Smoking type 12th grade 2020 12th grade 2021 Change
Any vaping (last 12 months) 39% 31.5% -7.5
Cigarettes (last 30 days) 7.5% 4.1% -3.4
JUUL (last 12 months) 26.1% 12.2% -13.9

*Note: The COVID-19 pandemic halted collection of 12th graders’ data in 2020, so no comparisons can be made between years for certain smoking and tobacco types.

When and why do teens try substances?

Surveys show that drinking and drug use can start early, with some kids stating that they’d tried alcohol and certain drugs in elementary school. When and where teens try substances depends on responses to peer pressure, stability of their home lives, and availability of substance abuse education.

A 2019 survey showed that about 25% of 14- and 15-year-olds claimed to have had at least one alcoholic drink, with 7 million people between 12 and 20 stating they’d had an alcoholic beverage in the past month. Adolescents are also prone to participate in binge drinking — consuming 3-5 drinks in less than two hours. Around 4 million young people stated that they participated in binge drinking at least once in the previous month.⁸

Easy access to alcohol makes it more likely for a teen to drink, with 96.5% of 12-14-year-olds reporting that they received free alcohol the first time they drank. Teens may also drink because of life stressors or a desire for independence.⁸

According to a 2021 study, marijuana is the first drug consumed by around 66% of adolescents, with inhalants being the first drug tried by about 25% of respondents. The rest of the children surveyed first used hallucinogens, prescription drugs, or other illicit drugs.⁹ A 2014 report on rehab facility intake showed that 74% of those admitted had tried drugs before the age of 17, with 10.2% at 11 or younger.¹⁰

The National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us there are five reasons why most adolescents try drugs:

  1. To fit in: gaining acceptance from peers

  2. To feel good: experiencing pleasure

  3. To feel better: relieving symptoms of depression or stress

  4. To do better: enhancing athletic or academic performance

  5. To experiment: seeking new and exciting experiences¹¹

Addiction and the teen brain

Our brains continue to grow and develop until our mid-20s. Specifically, in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, and this area controls decision-making and impulse regulation. Teenagers are more likely to pursue pleasurable activities, but their ability to assess risks and consequences is inhibited. Early intervention to prevent experimentation with drugs and alcohol is critical to help adolescents learn the consequences of addiction.¹²

Drug use can slow or stop the maturation of certain brain functions, including memory and thinking ability. While most teens who experiment with substances do not end up addicted in adulthood, drug and alcohol use can lead to lasting effects that are detrimental to health and well-being, including:

  • Problems in school
  • Strained relationships with family and friends
  • Memory loss or impairment
  • Sexual promiscuity, including a higher risk of contracting an STD
  • Mental health issues
  • Death from drug overdose¹²

Because adolescent brains inherently seek rewards and pleasurable experiences, the rush of dopamine teens experience when taking drugs can make them more likely to continue experimenting. Without a proper understanding of the consequences of drug and alcohol use, adolescent experimentation may become dependence, especially if the teen is:

  • Genetically predisposed to addiction
  • A trauma survivor
  • Exposed to stressors at a young age
  • Not raised in a nurturing environment¹²

Signs of substance use and addiction in teenagers

Just as in adults, there are many signs and symptoms of alcohol and drug use in teens. It’s essential to look for and recognize these symptoms to start an adolescent on a recovery path.

Physical signs of substance use and addiction may include:

  • Slower or faster than normal speech
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Recurring cough
  • Bad breath
  • Larger or smaller than normal pupils
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Unsteady gait¹³

Teens may also show some behavioral changes, including:

  • Being tired or sluggish
  • Having excessive energy
  • Withdrawing from typical, daily activities
  • Earning poor grades
  • Missing school
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Participating in secretive activities
  • Changing regular friend group¹³

If you recognize any of these changes in your teen’s activities or behavior, it may be time to talk to them about their substance use or get help for them through a third party, like a school counselor or rehab facility.

Teen substance use and crime

Although we can’t determine the direct connection between substance use and crime, what has been observed in teens is that many who enter the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for substance use disorders (SAD). A 2011 study found that 17% of adolescents entering the justice system and 22% of those already in the system qualified as living with SAD.¹⁴

It’s also important to note that, even in states where some drugs are legal, adolescents do not meet age requirements to purchase or use these products. The same is true for alcohol, cigarettes, and vapes. Simply possessing these substances while under a particular age is considered a criminal offense.

Advice for parents

There are many ways that parents and guardians can take an active role in helping teens avoid substance abuse. We’ve included some tips below and some resources to consult if you need extra help.

Tip #1: Get involved

Teens are more likely to experiment with alcohol or drugs if their parents haven’t discussed the dangers and consequences with them. Let your child know how substance use could affect their life now and in the future and encourage ongoing conversations about the issue.

Tip #2: Teach strategies

It’s great for a teen to know the consequences, but they may not be prepared to say no in the moment. Talk to your child about peer pressure and practice ways to turn down substances, including changing the subject or setting clear boundaries with friends.

Tip #3: Know their friends

Being involved in your teen’s life also means knowing who they hang out with. This doesn’t mean prying into your child’s life or violating their privacy; instead, it means knowing their friends, inviting them over, and conversing with the friend’s parents to feel secure about their influence in your child’s life.

Tip #4: Support empowering activities

Emphasizing that there are plenty of other activities that don’t involve drugs or alcohol can help teens develop hobbies and interests outside of substances. This can include team sports, school clubs, part-time jobs, volunteer work, or other healthy activities.

Tip #5: Be open

Let your teen know they can come to you if substance use issues arise. Instead of lecturing them about the dangers, it’s essential to have an open and honest dialogue where they feel comfortable asking questions or discussing issues without judgment.

Resources

Resources for teens

If you’re a teen who is struggling with drugs, alcohol, or other substances, know that you’re not alone. This is a national issue, and many other adolescents are going through the same thing. Luckily, there are also loads of resources you can consult to get the help you need. Take a look at our list below.

References

[1] Teenage drug use statistics [2022]: Data; Trends on abuse. NCDAS. (2022, April 6). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/.

[2] Monitoring the future. (2021). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/21data.htm.

[3] What is the definition of addiction? (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.asam.org/quality-care/definition-of-addiction.

[4] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, April 1). Drug use severity in adolescence affects substance use disorder risk in adulthood. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/2022/04/drug-use-severity-in-adolescence-affects-substance-use-disorder-risk-in-adulthood.

[5] Miech, R., Johnston, L., O’Malley, P., Keyes, K., and Heard, K. (2015). Prescription opioids in adolescence and future opioid misuse. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/136/5/e1169/33798/Prescription-Opioids-in-Adolescence-and-Future?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

[6] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, June 3). Monitoring the future 2021 survey results. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/monitoring-future-2021-survey-results.

[7] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, March 31). Percentage of adolescents reporting drug use decreased significantly in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic endured. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/2021/12/percentage-of-adolescents-reporting-drug-use-decreased-significantly-in-2021-as-the-covid-19-pandemic-endured.

[8] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Underage drinking National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking.

[9] Zhang, S., Wu, S., Wu, Q., Durkin, D. W., & Marsiglia, F. F. (2021). Adolescent drug use initiation and transition into other drugs: A retrospective longitudinal examination across race/ethnicity. Addictive behaviors, 113, 106679. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33032193/.

[10] SAMHSA. (2014). The TEDS report: Age of substance use initiation among treatment admissions aged 18 to 30. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/WebFiles_TEDS_SR142_AgeatInit_07-10-14/TEDS-SR142-AgeatInit-2014.htm.

[11] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, May 24). Why do adolescents take drugs? National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questions/why-do-adolescents-take-drugs.

[12] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, August 3). Principles of adolescent substance use disorder treatment: A research-based guide. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/introduction.

[13] U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Teenagers and drugs: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001975.htm.

[14] SAMHSA. (n.d.). Juvenile drug courts help youth dealing with trauma. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/juvenile-drug-courts-help-youth.