Substance Abuse in Teens

Teenage substance abuse is a significant problem. It negatively affects the lives of teens, parents, families, caregivers, teachers, peers, and communities.

Common Drugs That Teens Use

Teen substance abuse transcends race, culture, environment, and socio-economic situations. Plus, it is something that impacts every single one of us in one way or another. Teen drug use is highly prevalent and potentially fatal, as it destroys the lives of teens with substance abuse disorders.


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The Impact of Drug Use on the Teenage Brain

Types of Commonly Abused Drugs

The far-reaching adverse effects of teen drug abuse include the following:1

However, there is hope. Drug rehab facilities do incredible work to combat teen drug use, and many successful programs can effectively help teens with teen substance abuse. In this article, we will address everything you need to know about teen drug use, misuse, and abuse and the best ways to fight against it.

Let’s begin by defining the common drugs abused by teens. Teen drug use follows a similar pattern to adult drug use in terms of drug type, but particular preferences and differences exist. The two broad categories of drugs abused by teens are legal and illegal drugs.

Legal drugs include either prescription medication, over-the-counter medication, or alcohol. Although alcohol is a legal substance, the consumption of alcohol by teenagers is illegal in most states, with a few exceptions for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds in some states under certain circumstances.2

Now, let’s look at the most common drugs involved in teen drug use in the United States.

A Further Look at Drug Abuse


Narcotics are designed to dull the senses and reduce pain. They are either made from opium, created in a laboratory, or both.2

Here are some examples of narcotics:
  • Opium
  • Heroin
  • Codeine
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Tramadol
  • Morphine
  • Hydromorphone
  • Fentanyl
  • Carfentanil
Narcotics are highly addictive, and unfortunately, they are becoming more widely available to teenagers. Opiates are often used to come down from uppers, which creates a severe pattern of addiction involving two or more substances. Narcotics can be snorted, injected, smoked, or taken in tablet form.


Stimulants, also known as uppers, provide the user with a spike in energy, which eliminates fatigue. Unfortunately, teenagers commonly abuse these stimulants because they are attracted to the stimulation and feelings of confidence these drugs offer.
Examples include:
  • Amphetamines, known as speed, meth, and crystal
  • Cocaine, either crack rock or powder
  • Ecstasy, known as MDMA or methylenedioxymethamphetamine
  • Methylphenidate, known as Ritalin

Stimulants have always been a prevalent choice among teenagers and young people because they are often associated with nightlife, clubbing, and festivals. Unfortunately, prescription medication with a high schedule like Methylphenidate, or Ritalin, is often misused when people take too much, snort the tablets, or take the pills despite not having ADD or ADHD. Additionally, stimulants as a whole are often abused alongside alcohol, which is a combination that produces a powerful effect in the brain and becomes highly addictive very quickly.


Depressants are psychoactive drugs that slow down the activity of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and the spinal cord. Slowing down the CNS reduces a person’s alertness and internal functions, like breathing and heart rate. Depressants can take the form of pharmaceutical drugs as well as illicit substances.3

Examples include the following:
  • Tranquilizers
  • Sedatives
  • Hypnotics
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Alcohol
Traditional depressants are less widely used amongst teenagers, but abuse is still a significant problem. Alcohol is the exception here, and according to most statistics, it is the most commonly abused substance for teenagers and young people combined.
The cultural and societal acceptance of alcohol makes it a tricky one to handle. Plus, teenagers are frequently exposed to marketing campaigns, popular culture, and friends and family who use alcohol, sometimes in excess.


There are many different strains and types of marijuana. Recent legislative changes in some states have seen the illicit status change in specific ways. There is no doubt that cannabis abuse is a severe problem amongst teenagers and that the drug negatively affects the developing minds and bodies of young people. Cannabis is also proven to be a gateway drug that leads to other more powerful narcotics and stimulants. Along with alcohol, cannabis is the most commonly abused drug by kids in their teenage years.


Hallucinogens alter thought processes and overall perception, leading to significant distortions of reality.
Examples include:
  • LSD
  • Psilocybin or magic mushrooms
  • Peyote or mescaline
  • DMT
  • Ketamine or Special K
  • PCP or phencyclidine
These dissociative and hallucinogenic drugs are hazardous for all people, especially for teenagers. Not only are they mind-altering, but they are also linked to severe mental disorders, like schizophrenia.
In addition, magic mushrooms, much like marijuana, are becoming more socially accepted in recent years, exacerbating the pre-existing problem of teenage use. The adolescent mind and body are still developing and growing. Potent drugs like this can have permanent and devastating consequences.
Other examples include inhalants, like cough syrup or lean, and the misuse of prescription medication by way of snorting, smoking, or injecting crushed tablets.

Drug Use Statistics in Teens

Teen Drug Use
Teen drug use and teen substance abuse cause serious problems worldwide, and the United States is no exception. As a result, many studies have sought out to determine the extent of the problem, and while none can be 100 percent accurate, they still provide some insight regardless.

All of the statistical information below is from a 2018 SAMHSA survey.4 Age groups were split into adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen, while the young adults were people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. We will refer to the adolescent stats to determine teenage usage and other stats for our purposes.

Teen Substance Abuse Treatment Needed

In 2018, about 946,000 adolescents needed substance use treatment in the past year. This number corresponds to 3.8 percent of adolescents, or about one in every twenty-six adolescents.

Teen Substance Abuse Treatment Received

Among adolescents in 2018, about 159,000 received substance use treatment in the past year, which is about 0.6 percent of adolescents. The 2018 percentage was similar to the percentages from 2015 to 2017.

Comparing the Two Statistics

These two statistics, when compared, are of particular concern. With 3.8 percent of teenagers needing treatment, and only 0.6 percent receiving it, thousands of teens require drug addiction detox or a drug rehab facility and are not getting access to one.
There are thousands of drug rehab facilities throughout the US, including inpatient drug rehab and outpatient drug rehab facilities. Many of these are state-sponsored and subsidized, and parents and families can apply for treatment for meager costs.

They do, of course, need to do their research and make applications, and they should be encouraged to be proactive and determined in seeking help for their children, family members, and loved ones. More studies need to be done to determine the reason for the relatively big difference between teens who need treatment and teens who receive treatment.

A Report on Teen Drug Abuse

Additional Teen Substance Use Statistics

Alcohol Use

In 2018, an estimated nine percent of adolescents in 2018 were current alcohol users, corresponding to 2.2 million adolescents who drank alcohol in the past month.

Binge Drinking

About 1.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2018 were past month binge drinkers, which corresponds to 4.7 percent of adolescents. Thus, about 1 in 21 adolescents were current binge drinkers.

Illicit Drugs

Approximately 4.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2018 were illicit drug users, which corresponds to about 1 in 6 adolescents, or 16.7 percent.


In 2018, about 1 in 8 adolescents aged 12 to 17, or 12.5 percent, were past-year users of marijuana. It represents approximately 3.1 million adolescents who used marijuana in the past year.


There were 112,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2018 who were past-year users of cocaine, including about 4,000 users of crack. These numbers correspond to 0.4 percent of adolescents who used cocaine in the past year and less than 0.1 percent who used crack cocaine.


In 2018, less than 0.1 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 were past-year heroin users. The percentage represents about 10,000 adolescents who used heroin in the past year.


In 2018, an estimated 376,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 were past-year users of hallucinogens, which corresponds to 1.5 percent of adolescents.

Prescription Drugs Containing Stimulants

In 2018, about 369,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 were misusers of prescription stimulants, corresponding to about 1.5 percent of adolescents.


Among adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2018, 2.8 percent misused opioids, corresponding to 699,000 adolescents.

Causes of Teens Using Drugs

There are many reasons teens turn to drug use and abuse, and most of them are not isolated. Patterns of behavior relating to home life, self-acceptance, mental conditions, and other factors play a role. In addition, being a teenager is difficult, even in ideal circumstances, making this group particularly susceptible to substance abuse.


Depression is a medical condition where feelings of sadness, pain, anguish, and anger overwhelm individuals and negatively affect their lives. Because of the change teens are going through, they are particularly susceptible to depression and will often turn to drugs as a way of self-medicating.5


A significant cause of drug use and abuse is the need to be accepted into a group. Many teens are self-conscious, shy, and impressionable, leading them into trouble. Since drug-taking is incorrectly considered edgy, cool, or fashionable by many young and naive teenagers, the groups experimenting with drugs are even more attractive.6


The glorification of drug abuse in popular culture, particularly in modern trap rap music and the mumble rap genres, increased the popularity of drugs, which also plays a role. Most of these artists actively promote the abuse of prescription drugs like Xanax and the consumption of lean, or cough syrup mixed with soda, with some even using the drug names in their stage names. Furthermore, many artists admit to openly using illegal and prescription drugs, and young impressionable teenagers will look up to them and emulate their behavior.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, and it is profoundly affecting the lives of teenagers. When over-the-counter or prescription medication is used other than in the prescribed manner, or when someone uses prescription drugs without prescription, this is prescription drug abuse. These drugs are often resold for profit, traded, or illegally obtained via fake scripts. There is a misleading assumption that these drugs are safer to abuse than illicit narcotics, but all inpatient drug rehab facilities are occupied with many prescription drug addicts.7

What Are the Signs of Drug Abuse in Teens?

Teachers, parents, family members, peers, and concerned parties need to understand the signs of drug use or abuse in teenagers. Early intervention statistics are very promising, so the earlier it is discovered, the more hope for a successful intervention.

Behavioral Signs

The following behavioral signs might be an indication of drug use or abuse. These are not, however, always signs of drug use or misuse.8
  • Sudden change in friends
  • Withdrawal from the family unit and family activities
  • Frequently breaking curfew
  • Uncharacteristic behavior like violence, short temper, and screaming
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Either hyperactive or very lazy
  • Deterioration in grades and interest in school work
  • Withdrawal from sports and other physical activity
  • Constantly asking for money or stealing items at home and school

Physical Signs

Physical signs of drug abuse may include the following symptoms:8
  • Slurred speech
  • Incoherence
  • Speaking extremely fast
  • Poor hygiene
  • Lack of concern in appearance
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Extremely pale or ashy complexion
  • Sores and open wounds that don’t heal

Risks of Drugs Use

Drug abuse is a risky business for anyone, but even more so for teens. Here’s why.

Effects of Drugs on Developing Brain

It might be pretty surprising for teenagers to hear, but their brains are still developing, and they certainly don’t know everything! For example, in teenagers, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, and it’s the area you use in critical thinking, such as when you weigh pros and cons before making a decision. Unfortunately, this makes it more likely for teens to abuse drugs. Drug abuse will directly affect any undeveloped part of the brain and create neural pathways that can seriously negatively affect the teen’s future.9

Effects of Drug Use on Body

Abusing drugs affect a developing brain as much as a developing body. Drug abuse affects hormones, internal organs, chemical balances, the nervous system, and pretty much every component of the developing teenage body.

Effects on Social Life

Drug abuse might seem cool at the time, and teens might even gain entry into a particular social group, but ultimately, the drugs will have a negative effect. Teens who abuse drugs struggle to socialize in productive and normal ways, and the social groups based on drug-taking soon fall apart due to selfishness and hedonism.

Effects on Academics

Drug abuse and academics do not go well, and sooner or later, the drug use or misuse will begin to affect grades. It can be due to a combination of diminished capacity for concentration, truancy, lack of motivation, and reduced intelligence.

How To Prevent Teens from Using Drugs

Both prevention and cure are required to tackle teen drug use and teen substance abuse successfully. Let’s look at the factors that play the most significant role.
How To Prevent Teens from Using Drugs

Family Support

The role of the family is the most important in preventing and treating drug addiction in teens. Families should be involved in the teens’ lives and keep communication channels open to deal with any issues. Families must also play a role in intervention where necessary and should fight as hard as possible to pull their teen family members away from the clutches of drug abuse.10

Medical Help

The family GP or physician is often a good place to start for families concerned with potential or admitted drug abuse. A GP can medically assess and stabilize the teen if necessary and reach out to addiction specialists and rehab facilities to take treatment further.

Talking to a Teen About Drug Use

Drug Addiction Treatment for Teens

There are various therapeutic options for teen substance abuse, and the program depends on quite a few factors. Typical forms of therapy for teen drug abuse include:

Behavioral Family Therapy

FBT involves the patient and at least one significant other, usually a mom, dad, or another family member or caregiver. Therapists engage families during FBT sessions, discussing behavioral strategies, the home environment, and how to improve things to facilitate a better drug-free life for the teen.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) is a counseling method that aims to solve any hesitancy to start treatment and stop drug use. MET attempts to develop real change from the teen by reinforcing the need for a new path.


CBT teaches patients the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and actions and how they relate to drug use and abuse. CBT helps break the destructive behavioral patterns that result in drug abuse.


Drug rehabilitation is often the only solution for teens whose addictions have gotten out of hand. Outpatient rehab is when the teen lives at home but regularly attends counseling sessions to cure their drug addiction. Inpatient rehab is where the teen is admitted to a facility where they will live for specific periods.


Teen drug abuse affects each one of us in one way or another, and we should arm ourselves with the knowledge to be able to assist children in need. Anyone who knows of someone or is themselves going through a struggle with substance use or abuse is encouraged to seek professional assistance immediately.