Teenage drug, alcohol and nicotine use declined dramatically from 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey. NIDA’s most notable observation in just one year was the decrease in illicit drug abuse since the inception of MTF in 1975.
“It is really in all categories that we are seeing that, in terms of drops from one year to the other,” says NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow.
U.S. teenage drug and alcohol use has been decreasing for years. However, the pandemic may have contributed to these trends being accelerated. This may seem surprising given the alarming rises in adult drug use. Between May 2020 and April 2021 more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Studies also show that the use of alcohol by adults is on the rise.
Plus, like adults, teenagers’ mental health has suffered during the pandemic. In 2021, MTF respondents reported moderate increases in anxiety, depression, boredom, loneliness, worry and difficulty sleeping—all of which would seem to predict a jump in substance use.
But, for youths, it has been the reverse. Volkow thinks that’s in large part because pandemic restrictions (and time spent at home with parents) eliminated some opportunities for social drinking or drug use. MTF data shows that the past month and past year saw a greater drop in substance use than daily. Volkow states that this indicates a decrease in casual drug consumption in 2021.
Despite the decreases in alcohol use, it remains the most common illegal drug among U.S teenagers. The average teenager who drank alcohol during the previous year was 47%, 29% and 55% respectively.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data also show that teenage vaping has fallen from its peak a few years back. In the MTF survey, about 27% of 12th graders and 20% of 10th graders said they’d vaped nicotine in the past year, compared to almost 35% and 31% in 2020.
Similar numbers of students said they’d used marijuana in some form in the past year. But few reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana—just 7% of seniors and 5% of sophomores, down from about 11% and 9% in 2020.
Traditional cigarette use also remains rare among teenagers, with just 4% of seniors and 2% of sophomores saying they’d smoked in the past 30 days.
These figures were encouraging but the researchers warned that data collection during a pandemic is not without its risks. NIDA conducts MTF annually with the University of Michigan researchers. This survey includes thousands of eighth, tenth and twelveth graders from across the United States. For the 2021 version, the roughly 32,000 respondents filled out the survey online—some at school and some at home.
Researchers warn that this could have affected the results as teenagers might not feel comfortable reporting substance abuse when parents are near. Students who are not engaged with schoolwork—which is considered a risk factor for drug use—may also have been less likely to take the survey if they were learning remotely, and thus may have been underrepresented in the group.
It’s also possible, Volkow says, that some of this progress may be erased in future years, as pandemic restrictions ease and life inches closer to normal. “I am concerned that, if we are not proactive in trying to do prevention, we will get back to the numbers that we had before,” Volkow says. “We can [maintain this year’s] numbers if we are able to provide strong education and training for teenagers, and provide them with alternative behaviors.”