The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been conducting a yearly survey on teenage drug use since 1975. The study is known as “Monitoring the Future,” and it tracks how teenagers use all kinds of substances. According to the 2020 survey results, alcohol and illicit drugs were the top choices for students. As much as 61.5% of the 12th graders who were surveyed had had at least one serving of alcohol, and 46.6% had already tried drugs.
Thanks to anti-drug campaigns, most teens are aware of the negative effects of drug use and potential for addiction. However, NIDA statistics show numbers remaining consistent. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for a Tampa drug rehab and other facilities to admit teenage patients for addiction treatment. There are a few possibilities why teenagers still experiment with drugs despite knowing the risks involved, and understanding these factors can give clues on how to help them better avoid it.
Teenagers are often characterized as being impulsive, reckless, and emotional—and there may actually be a scientific reason for it. Researchers have discovered that contrary to previously held beliefs, the human brain does not reach complete development until around age 25. The last part to mature is known as the prefrontal cortex. Which is responsible for logic and decision-making. In contrast, the amygdala region matures at an early age, so the brain’s emotional center may be more influential in its processes. The differences in brain development may be helpful for understanding why teenagers behave the way they do.
Physiology can influence drug-seeking behavior through genetic inheritance. A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded genetic heritage accounts for up to 60% of the risk for developing substance use disorder. Apart from their genes, some people exposed to their parent’s drug abuse while in the womb may have developed a dependence to it while in vitro. This can have long-term effects on development and raise the risk of substance abuse later in life.
Curiosity, Rebellion, and Media Influence
The adolescent body is preoccupied with a lot of physical changes like menstruation, developing breasts, larger testes, and new body hair. Along with bodily transformations, teenagers become curious about the larger world and what it means to be an adult. Media often provides an easy answer. Many movies and TV shows offer depictions of teenagers sneaking booze into parties or rolling a joint to “chill out.” Portrayed as “something the cool kids do,” these behaviors become normalized or even a rite of passage for entering into adulthood.
Becoming an adult also means there are new liberties to enjoy, like getting a driver’s license and being allowed to drive. Using drugs allows teens to assert their independence from their parents. Drinking alcohol allows for uninhibited behaviors. While other drugs allow for altered perspectives seemingly removing the stress of daily life.
Peer Pressure and Fitting In
Finding social acceptance is important for adolescents. Belonging to a group provides a sense of stability amid all the changes they are experiencing. This can make them more willing to engage in risky behavior as they want to look and act the same way as their peers. They might also rationalize binge drinking and using drugs as “safe” because they see friends abusing substances seemingly without consequence. Except the occasional hangover.
Certain substances can also heighten the emotional state and make activities feel more pleasurable. Ecstasy and mushrooms are stimulants that enhance the senses, so teens attending a concert or music festival might be pressured to “maximize the experience” and not “miss out on the fun.”
Stress and Anxiety Relief
Problems at home, difficulties with schoolwork, and feeling like a social outcast are the most common sources of stress for teenagers. The experience of bullying in school without wanting to become a “tattletale,” carries additional social stigma. Feeling alone and misunderstood can be triggers for substance abuse such as, drinking alcohol or using drugs to help “forget the pain.”
Drug use isn’t always about escapism and pleasure. For teenagers feeling the pressure to might lead to drug use to get top scores or juggle school work and extracurricular activities. Adderall and Ritalin are prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD, but they are often abused by people who want to be hyper focused and alert. These drugs might be used by students in the hope of being able to learn better and thereby improving their grades. Teenagers may also be more willing to use these since they are legal drugs and therefore presumed to be safe. They may also feel they are doing it for the right reasons since the goal is to improve their performance at school.
Teenagers experiment with drugs for a wide range of reasons, and it’s not always just about having fun. Educational campaigns can help create awareness of the risks involved in drug use, but teenagers need better support and understanding to encourage them to stay away from substance abuse.