Substance Use and Abuse
One choice that faces many youth is substance use. Substance use can be somewhat difficult to define, but in general it refers to ingesting any legal or illegal substance that alters psychological functioning on more than a few occasions. Substance abuse refers to the use of a substance (legal or illegal) to the extent that it creates difficulties in day-to-day life.
How prevalent is substance use and abuse? A large nationwide survey of U.S. high school students indicated that two thirds of ninth graders had tried alcohol, half had tried tobacco, and one third had tried marijuana. Many of these students reported trying these substances before 13 years of age (11% tried marijuana, 19% tried cigarettes, and 34% tried alcohol) (Eaton et al., 2006). Smaller percentages of ninth graders had tried cocaine and other drugs. Use of inhalants (sniffing glue, paint, or aerosols) is a more recent phenomenon: More ninth graders than twelfth graders reported ever having tried inhalants. Use of Ecstasy (also known as MDMA), is becoming more common, with 6% of teens nationwide reporting having used it at least once.
Statistics shows ethnic differences in substance use from the same nationwide survey. Use of all the drugs listed except marijuana was lower among African Americans than among non-Hispanic whites or Hispanics. Hispanics reported the highest use of marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, methamphetamines, and heroin; white students show the highest rates of tobacco use. Other large-scale surveys show that the rate of using many illegal drugs has declined in recent years, by about 10% among twelfth graders. However, the use of inhalants, sedatives, and the addictive prescription drug OxyContin has increased (Cleveland & Wiebe, 2003; Dishion & Owen, 2002; Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2006).
The rates of alcohol and tobacco (and increasingly, marijuana) use are concerning. As you saw above, a majority of teens have at least tried alcohol by the time they reach high school and many drink regularly. Most obtain alcohol from their own homes. Binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion, is also becoming more common among high school students, with 20% of ninth graders and 37% of twelfth graders saying they have binged at least once (Eaton et al., 2006). Alcohol use by teens is related to many problem behaviors and outcomes, including traffic accidents and fatalities, early sexual activity, rape, poor school performance, and poorer mental health. It can be difficult to tease apart which factors lead to and which result from alcohol use, but alcohol use by teens is clearly linked to many problems. Tobacco use has declined significantly since the mid-1990s, but this trend is weakening for both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (currently used by about 7% of teens). Teens hold much more negative attitudes toward smoking and its health risks than in past years, there is less cigarette advertising that targets them, and they see much more antismoking advertising. The sky-rocketing cost of cigarettes is probably also a factor in declining rates of tobacco use (Johnston et al., 2006). Finally, marijuana is by far the most frequently used drug that is illegal for both adolescents and adults. It equals tobacco in the percentage of teens who are regular users.
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