According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) performed in 2006, over 2 million teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 met diagnostic criteria for abuse or addiction to illicit drugs or alcohol. Out of all these teenagers, only 181,000 of them received treatment at a specialty facility – that is about 9% of the youths who are in need of treatment. Throughout the last 10 years, alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use have decreased – however, the use of hallucinogenic and prescription drugs among teenagers has risen in the same time period. According to the same NSDUH survey, 16.6% of 12 to 17 year olds had abused alcohol, 10.4% had abused cigarettes, and 6.8% had abused marijuana in the month prior to the survey. This research study will go through some of the most common reasons that cause teenagers to abuse drugs.


Teenagers are able to see other people using drugs more often than one would think. They can see their friends using drugs in a social setting or even at school. They can also see their parents and other family members using drugs at home. The frequency with which teenagers can encounter someone abusing drugs is so overwhelming that it is very likely for them to think that using drugs is acceptable and ordinary.

The teen social scene often revolves around drinking, smoking pot, or trying other drugs, depending on the situation. Many times, teenagers will try drugs because one of their friends pressured them to, saying that it was “cool” and that it would help them “fit in,” thus relieving social anxiety. The modern-day mentality regarding the teenage social scene is that drugs, especially alcohol, are a common and normal part of the teenage experience, and that everyone, whether they are the “cool kid” or the outcast, has or will try drugs at some point in their teenage years because they do not want to feel left out. They also believe certain drugs, such as alcohol and ecstasy, are less harmful than they really are. What teenagers fail to realize, however, are the negative consequences related to drug abuse, especially within a peer group context. According to, alcohol is the leading factor in the top 3 causes for death in teenagers, which are auto crashes, homicides, and suicides. Another negative consequence that teenagers overlook before trying drugs is addiction. In the case of alcohol, teens that start drinking before the age are 15 are five times more likely to bsecome addicted to alcohol later on, unlike those people who waited until after they were 21 years old to start drinking.

Many teenagers are also exposed to drugs at school, particularly high schools. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia) conducted a survey in 2012 where over 1,000 teenagers aged 12 through 17 were asked about their home and academic lives, their attitudes towards drug use, and whether they or their friends engaged in drug use. The survey found that 17% of high school students drink, do drugs, and smoke during the school day. They also found that 44% of students said they personally knew a student who sold drugs at their school. The most striking finding of this study, however, is the effect of peer pressure through social media on teen drug use. A whopping 75% of those surveyed said seeing pictures of teens partying with alcohol or marijuana on social networking sites such as Facebook or Instagram encourages them to party similarly. Teens who had seen these types of pictures were found to be four times more likely to have used marijuana, more than three times more likely to have used alcohol, and three times more likely to have used tobacco. In these days where modern technology plays such an important role in everyone’s lives, digital peer pressure is a rapidly growing influence on teenage drug abuse. The CASAColumbia survey can be found here:

Although friends and other teenagers can be a large influence when it comes to drug abuse, one’s own family can also be a factor. According to, one out of four people under the age of 18 in the United States is exposed to alcoholism and drug dependence in their families. Teenagers can frequently see their parents drinking alcohol, smoking, and sometimes abusing other substances. Even though the extent of which parents engage in drug use varies from family to family, teenagers will copy their family members, thinking that if their family does it then it is all right for them to do it as well. Teenagers look up to their parents to know what is right – this is a key psychological reason for why parents should talk to their children about drug abuse and its consequences so that they are not uninformed. According to, teenagers who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use drugs than those who don’t.


Popular media projects a contorted image to teenagers that drug use is not nearly as bad as it seems. The two major ways that the media gets this message across to its audience is through advertising and movies/TV shows. More than $25 billion per year is spent on advertising for tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs – such advertising has shown to be effective in getting people to buy these products. Many ads use celebrity endorsers, humor, or attractive models, all of which have been shown to be effective with teenagers. According to a study done by the Council on Communications and Media in 2010, advertising may be responsible for up to 30% of teen tobacco and alcohol use. Cigarette advertising, for example, increases teenagers’ risk of smoking by glamorizing smoking and smokers. Smokers are depicted as young, independent, rebellious, healthy, and adventurous. However, the lung cancer and other health problems associated with cigarettes are never advertised. Similar to tobacco ads, ads for alcohol, especially beer commercials, are made to appeal to teenagers by depicting images of fun-loving, sexy, successful young people having the time of their lives. Once again, these ads do not reference the health and addiction issues associated with alcohol abuse.

Misrepresentation of drug use is also rampant in other forms of entertainment media, particularly PG-13 and R-rated movies and TV shows. Two of the most common drugs depicted in movies and TV shows are, once again, tobacco and alcohol. When analyzing American TV, there is 1 smoking scene every 57 minutes and 1 drinking scene every 22 minutes, according to a 2001 study published in Media, Sex, Violence, and Drugs in the Global Village. Scenes with smoking remain very common in movies. Hollywood likes to use smoking to paint a picture of a troubled character, but these characters are also depicted as rebellious and passionate, traits that teenagers find attractive. The same Council on Communications and Media study found that exposure to movie smoking may even trump parents’ smoking status as being the key factor in teenagers’ initiation of smoking, and that exposure to R-rated movies specifically doubles the risk of smoking. Similar to cigarette exposure, scenes in movies and TV shows containing alcohol use are often misleading. These scenes are depicted as humorous – the negative consequences associated with alcohol abuse are rarely shown. Strong evidence is emerging to indicate that watching more movie depictions of alcohol se is a strong predictor of drinking onset and binge drinking in American teenagers.

Use of drugs other than tobacco and alcohol are also depicted in advertisements and movies/TV to a lesser extent. Another large facet of advertising is prescription drug advertising – nearly $4 billion per year is spent in this area. Strong evidence proving the causality between exposure to these ads and the occurrence of prescription drug abuse in teenagers has yet to be found, although many experts believe there is a link between the two. There is a greater amount of evidence existing showing a link between exposure to illegal drug use in movies and TV shows and actual abuse of these drugs among teenagers. Similar to scenes with cigarettes and alcohol, scenes containing illegal drug use show no negative or harmful consequences befalling their characters. Many scenes depicting drug use, especially marijuana use, contain humor, which legitimizes drug use amongst teenagers. A study performed by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in 2005 showed that viewing R-rated movies was associated with a sixfold increased risk of trying marijuana.

Finally, similar to the digital peer pressure that was previously discussed, exposure to drug use on the Internet, especially social networking websites, offer new and problematic opportunities for teenage drug exposure and abuse. Many drugs, such as tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drugs, can now be purchased online with minimal difficulty. Teenagers need to be made aware of these new influences and encouraged to keep a vigilant eye out for these temptations.


When teenagers are unable to find a healthy outlet for their frustration or a trusted confidant to talk to about their feelings, they may turn to drugs for solace. Depending on the specific substance they are using, they may feel blissfully oblivious, wonderfully happy, energized and refreshed, or poised and confident. The teenage years are widely known as some of the toughest years of one’s life. The stress teenagers go through trying to navigate their lives may be so severe in some cases that it could lead to loss of interest, hopelessness, and even depression, which in turn would lead to them looking for any form of instant gratification and happiness. For the brief time that the drugs are taking effect, teens can feel a little braver, stronger, smarter, more beautiful, or more important. They can forget about the problems, responsibilities, and limitations of everyday life and escape to a fantasy world.

However, there are consequences to this form of self-medication. A report published in 2008 from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) revealed that marijuana use could worsen depression and lead to more serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and even suicide. They also found that depressed teens were more than twice as likely to use marijuana compared to non-depressed teens, and that teens who smoke marijuana at least once a month were three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-users. These effects are partly due to the fact that the potency of smoked marijuana has risen consistently over the past few decades, leading to even more serious health consequences for teenagers. The ONDCP report can be found here:

Unfortunately, teenagers are also using prescription drugs, which are legal and theoretically easier to obtain than marijuana, for self-medication purposes. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 9.1% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 misused prescription drugs in 2005 – in fact, prescription drugs were the most commonly abused drugs for teens who were 12 or 13 years old. Some of the types of prescription drugs that are abused are pain relievers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin; sedatives, such as Valium and Xanax; and stimulants, such as Ritalin (normally prescribed to people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). According to a survey conducted in 2006 by Monitoring the Future (MTF), a teenager who abuses prescription drugs is more likely to be female, white, and in her late teens, based on the epidemiological data. The data from the MTF study also suggested that teenagers underestimate the hazards of prescription drug abuse and characterize their actions as “responsible, controlled, and safe.” However, there are very real negative consequences to prescription drug abuse, including addiction, medical complications, and death. The full MTF survey can be found here:

There are healthy ways for teenagers to safely self-medicate at home without the use of drugs. Eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and getting a good night’s sleep help to stabilize the body and the mind by releasing positive endorphins into the bloodstream. Finding a good friend or adult to confide in can also take some of the stress off of today’s teens.


Although being bored may seem like a ridiculous reason to engage in drug use, it is actually a very legitimate reason. A study conducted by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in 2002 found that young people between the ages of 12 and 17 who are frequently bored are 50% likelier than those not often bored to smoke, drink, get drunk, and use illegal drugs. Sometimes, teenagers believe that there literally is nothing for them to do at a particular time point – none of their friends are free to hang out, there is nothing good on TV, and they have finished all their homework. Drugs can be a solution they turn to in order to provide a little bit of excitement in their lives. Furthermore, drugs provide a common ground for these types of teenagers who have trouble keeping themselves occupied, allowing them to instantly bond with other like-minded teenagers.

Another factor leading to teenage drug abuse that can be tied in with having too much free time is having too much spending money. According to a CASAColumbia study published in 2003, teens with $50 a week in spending money are much more likely to have tried cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana than those with $15 a week. This data fights the common misconception that substance-abusing teenagers are likely to be poor and living in highly urban neighborhoods – in fact, the mainstream suburban teenager with money to spend is more likely to get involved with drugs.

The fear that life away from alcohol and drugs will be boring leads to teenagers abusing drugs and alcohol regularly, resulting in a dependency on these substances. Addiction can destroy one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. Ironically, many addicts have said that the life of a person with substance use disorder itself is incredibly boring and predictable. According to, a resource for reliable information concerning substance abuse based in the United Kingdom, many of those who escape addiction will claim that boredom is now the least of their problems and that they now have more options on things they want to do. Avoiding boredom does require a significant amount of effort, but it can be incredibly beneficial to a teenager. Some methods that can be used to avoid boredom are picking up a hobby, planning ahead, breaking away from routine, experiencing a change in scenery, and meditation.


Finally, one of the most avoidable causes of teenage drug abuse is inaccurate information about drugs and alcohol. Teenagers often overlook the harmful consequences of drug use – they assume the risks are minimal and instead focus on the short-term benefits they provide. Parents often underestimate how prevalent drug abuse actually is among today’s teenagers. They may not be aware that their children are abusing drugs, or they may be in denial. It is critical that parents educate their teenagers and also themselves about drug use so they get the real facts about how dangerous it really is. Parents should also be involved in their children’s lives to ensure they are not using drugs and to look out for warning signs that they might be. There are many resources available online so that parents can learn how to structure these types of talks with their teenagers. Prevention is the best method of combatting teenage drug abuse.


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