May 1, 2024

5 Things Parents Should Know About Drug and Alcohol Use During Adolescence

Meghan Martz, Ph.D., shares her insights

Among those who experiment with drugs and alcohol, their first contact with a substance is most likely to occur when they are an adolescent. Among U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2022, 1.5 million initiated nicotine vaping, 1.8 million initiated alcohol use, and 1.2 million initiated marijuana use.

"There are many individual, familial, cultural, and societal factors that contribute to drug and alcohol use in adolescents. However, what makes certain adolescents more likely to use substances than others remains an important question that researchers are seeking to answer. It is essential that the most updated research findings are shared among adolescents, their families, and the general public so that they can stay informed about risk factors for— and protective factors against—substance use." - Meghan Martz, Ph.D.

Parents and teens may find this information difficult to navigate or may find that it conflicts with prior knowledge they have about substance use. To help you stay informed about the latest research findings, we have compiled 5 common myths about drug and alcohol use and explain the truth behind them.

Myth #1: It’s normal for teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Fact: While it is true that experimentation with drugs and alcohol often first occurs during adolescence, not all teens experiment with drugs and alcohol. In 2023, a national study of teens in the U.S. found 29% of 12th graders reported using cannabis in the past year and 46% of 12th graders reported using alcohol in the past year. These numbers show that the majority of teens are not using these substances. This is important for teens to know, because studies also show that most teens overestimate how many of their peers actually use drugs and alcohol.

Myth #2: Experimentation with drugs and alcohol among teens isn’t something to worry about.

Fact: Adolescents are especially sensitive to negative effects of drugs and alcohol since their brains are still developing in important areas, such as those involved in decision making, goal setting, and behavioral control. Early use of drugs and alcohol—especially before the age of 15—is associated with an increased risk for later substance use problems. In fact, the majority of adults who meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder started using substances as teenagers.

Myth #3: Teens are going to use drugs and alcohol, so there’s not a lot that parents can do to stop them.

Fact: Research shows that parents are crucial to helping their children safely navigate adolescence and certain parenting behaviors can help to protect teenagers from drug and alcohol use and its associated harms. These include not making drugs and alcohol available in the home, getting to know your children’s friends, monitoring your child’s activities and whereabouts, setting rules about substance use, and communicating regularly with your child about life in general.

Myth #4: Adolescent boys drink more than adolescent girls.

Fact: Historically, adolescent boys drank more frequently and in greater quantities compared to girls. Recently, however, more girls now report alcohol use and binge drinking, which is defined as drinking heavily over a relatively short period of time, enough to bring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or greater. This is concerning, considering that the same amount of alcohol negatively affects females to a greater extent than males.

Myth #5: Vaping nicotine is less harmful than smoking cigarettes.

Fact: Although vaping products do not contain tobacco, they still contain nicotine and a mixture of other chemicals. The long-term effects of these chemicals on a person’s health remains unknown. Current research into vaping nicotine shows that it may have a harmful effect on the developing adolescent brain, especially in brain regions associated with responding to rewards and emotional and cognitive functioning. It’s better that teens avoid smoking altogether so they can avoid these risks.