Teenage Substance Use and Other Risky Behaviors on the Decline

By Kelly Burch 11/01/17

"The changes have been driven more by changes in adolescents themselves more than by policies to reduce substance abuse or delinquent behavior.”

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Teens today are less likely to use drugs and alcohol or to engage in delinquent behavior like fighting and stealing. Now, researchers believe that the decline in both sets of behavior is caused by the same factor, something that is reducing teens’ interest in risky behaviors.

“We’ve known that teens overall are becoming less likely to engage in risky behaviors, and that’s good news,” Richard A. Grucza, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine and lead study author, said in a press release. “But what we learned in this study is that the declines in substance abuse are connected to declines in delinquency. This suggests the changes have been driven more by changes in adolescents themselves more than by policies to reduce substance abuse or delinquent behavior.”

The study looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual survey of 12- to 17-year-olds from all 50 states, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The results were published in the journal Psychological Medicine. Researchers found that substance use disorders among 12- to 17-year olds decreased by 49% between 2003 and 2014. Delinquent behaviors decreased 34% over the same time period.

The research suggests that something has caused a large change in teenagers’ willingness to engage in risky behavior. Researchers weren’t able to identify what caused that change, however.

“It’s not clear what is driving the parallel declines,” Grucza said. “New policies—including things like higher cigarette taxes and stricter anti-bullying policies—certainly have a positive effect. But seeing these trends across multiple behaviors suggests that larger environmental factors are at work. These might include reductions in childhood lead exposure, lower rates of child abuse and neglect, and better mental health care for children.”

Researchers estimate that in 2014, 700,000 fewer teens were dealing with substance use disorder than in 2003. 

Despite the fact that the opioid epidemic grew over those years among the general population, researchers also found that opioid use among teens decreased significantly.

“Opioid problems continue to increase among adults,” Grucza said. “But among the 12- to 17-year-old population, we saw a drop of nearly 50 percent.”

Researchers noted that identifying what caused the reductions in drug use and delinquent behavior could lead to further reductions.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.