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New Survey Shows Teen Drug Use Trends Amidst the Pandemic

COVID-19 teen drug use trends

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world hard, and many people around the globe are still suffering from its effects. The loss of loved ones, businesses, jobs, school, and human connection has led many people to experience feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness. New research supports this sentiment. According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), reports of mental health symptoms, as well as unmet mental health needs, have increased significantly since the pandemic began. Young people are among the most affected. 

In the summer of 2020, about five months into the pandemic, over 60 percent of young adults reported they were suffering from significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. About one-quarter also said they increased their use of substances since the pandemic began, as well, in efforts to cope with their emotions. This includes drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and using prescription drugs. 

Teenagers (ages 13 to 18) have also experienced an increase in mental health issues. In a recent national survey, it was reported that 1 in 3 teen girls, and 1 in 5 teen boys, have experienced new or worsening anxiety since the pandemic’s start. About 46 percent of parents said their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since March 2020. However, teen substance use has not followed the same trend. Teen drug use has stayed relatively stable or decreased over recent months.

The latest Monitoring the Future study, which surveyed teens in the summer of 2020, was designed to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teen drug abuse. It found that, in comparison to pre-pandemic levels in early 2021, teens’ levels of marijuana use was stable. Teen alcohol abuse also declined during the pandemic:

  • Teen Marijuana Use: Pre-pandemic, 23 percent of high school students used marijuana in the last 30 days. During the pandemic, however, 20 percent of high schoolers used marijuana in the last 30 days.
  • Teen Alcohol Use: Pre-pandemic, 17 percent of high school students reported binge drinking in the last two weeks. This number dropped to 13 percent during the pandemic in July 2020.

These survey results were gathered in the heat of summer, when teens are most likely to try substances like marijuana for the first time. If 2020 were to have followed typical trends, we would have expected to see an increase in teen substance use. So, what changed? What drove the decline in teen drug abuse, and is this a trend we can expect to continue in a post-pandemic world?

When we think about the experiences of teenagers during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a great period of transition and change. Adolescents of all ages, whether in middle school or their senior year of high school, had to switch to distance learning. They could not see their friends at school or participate in extracurricular activities like sports, prom, or even graduation. This caused a lot of stress and sadness for many teenagers across the nation. For many, socialization is the cornerstone of adolescence. 

For months following the onset of COVID-19, stay-at-home orders were in place—and in many states and homes, these orders were enforced. Teenagers were spending more time with their family than ever, and more time at home in a supervised setting. There was less opportunity to drink, to use drugs, and to spend time with substance-using friends. There was also less opportunity to obtain these substances. 

According to the Monitoring the Future results, teenagers reported a sharp decrease in the availability of marijuana and alcohol after the onset of the pandemic. With less socialization and increased supervision, these substances were not as accessible to teenagers:

  • Marijuana Availability: Pre-pandemic, over 75 percent of teenagers said marijuana was either “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain. During the pandemic, this figure dropped to 59 percent—meaning 17 percent of teens found it more difficult to access marijuana with the stay-at-home orders.
  • Alcohol Availability: Pre-pandemic, 86 percent of teenagers found alcohol “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get. However, during the stay-at-home orders, only 62 percent of teens said the same thing. About 24 percent, or one-quarter of teenagers, found it increasingly difficult to obtain alcohol while they were locked down.

The sharp declines in availability are some of the largest we’ve seen in the history of this survey. Interestingly, however, these sharp declines did not translate to sharp declines in teen substance use. While we might expect to see a 17 percent decline in teen marijuana use, following the decrease in availability, we did not—teen marijuana use only dropped three percentage points during the pandemic.

Despite the drop in perceived availability of marijuana and alcohol, the truth is that these substances are still widely available to teenagers and young adults. 62 percent of teens still feel that alcohol is easy to obtain, while 59 percent say marijuana is easy to get. This is likely why the high numbers of teens using marijuana and drinking alcohol continues, even despite stay-at-home orders. It’s also possible that, even with these substances being more difficult to obtain, teens still went out of their way to get them in their hands.

What does this say about the future of teen drug use? The latest Monitoring the Future findings suggest that adolescent drug use goes well-beyond availability. To decrease teens’ propensity to drink and use drugs, it will take more than restricting their supply and keeping them at home. Parents, older siblings, and other role models can play an important part in preventing teen drug use and drinking by:

  • Educating teens about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse
  • Dispelling any common myths, and sharing facts, about drug use among teens
  • Keeping tabs on who your teen is spending time with, and their whereabouts
  • Having open and honest conversations in your home about substance use
  • Setting rules, such as a curfew, and consequences in your home

While decreasing teenagers’ access to drugs is very important, it’s also critical that way take strides to reduce the demand for alcohol and drugs among teens today. To learn how you can help your teen, or how to start conversations about drug use at home, do not hesitate to contact Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized rehab center for teenagers struggling with drug abuse and mental health disorders.