Important Insights for Caregivers: Young teenagers consumed certain drugs (e-cigarettes, prescription drugs, inhalants) more frequently in the first year of the pandemic than before. Adolescents with pre-existing conditions or from families with lower resources consumed the most substances. Parents can support teenagers in avoiding substance abuse by demonstrating healthy coping behaviors and maintaining contact with their children.
Teenagers and the COVID-19 Pandemic: The lives of teenagers changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many attended school online, distanced themselves from friends and neighbors, and spent more time with family. Many experienced stress, uncertainty, and depression. Did these changes lead to different drinking and drug use patterns? Compared to before the pandemic, fewer teenagers reported consuming alcohol after the pandemic began. More and more teenagers reported using nicotine products (e.g., e-cigarettes), abusing prescription drugs, or using inhalants after the pandemic began.
To find out, my colleagues and I surveyed 9,270 teenagers aged 11 to 13 in the United States who were participating in an ongoing study – the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Have substance use patterns changed in teenagers after the pandemic began? Just like before the pandemic, alcohol and nicotine (e.g., e-cigarettes) were the most commonly consumed substances by teenagers. However, compared to pre-pandemic, fewer teenagers reported consuming alcohol after the pandemic began. More teenagers reported using nicotine products, abusing prescription drugs, or using inhalants after the pandemic began.
The pandemic seems to have led to a shift in substance use among young teenagers, away from alcohol and towards drugs. Since we only surveyed young teenagers (11- to 13-year-olds), our findings do not address the changes the pandemic could have brought for older teenagers. What happened during the course of the pandemic? Surprisingly, the decline in alcohol consumption increased even more in 2021, with teenagers reporting even lower rates. We expected their alcohol consumption to return to pre-pandemic levels as teenagers‘ lives returned to pre-pandemic routines – but instead, we saw a further decline. The increase in inhalant use and prescription drug abuse among teenagers decreased as the pandemic progressed, but remained present. In May 2021, young teenagers consumed these substances even more frequently than before the pandemic. Furthermore, the increase in nicotine use (e.g., e-cigarettes) among teenagers at the beginning of the pandemic (May 2020) decreased over time and disappeared by May 2021. Teenagers consumed substances less often in the first year of the pandemic as their parents made an effort to stay in touch with them and keep track of what their teenagers were doing.
Greater impacts were seen on families with lower resources and teenagers with existing difficulties. Were the early effects of the pandemic the same for all teenagers? No. Teenagers from families with lower income experienced a greater increase in substance use in the first year of the pandemic. This likely occurred because families with lower income had fewer resources to cushion stressful pandemic-related changes (e.g., a parent being laid off). Additionally, teenagers reported more behavior problems, depression, and anxiety. During the pandemic’s first year, there was a tendency for more alcohol and drug use among teenagers. The additional stress brought on by the pandemic likely increased the burden that these teenagers already felt.
Parents can help by being role models and staying in touch. Our surveys brought some good news: there are ways for parents to protect teenagers from an increase in alcohol or drug use due to the pandemic. First, teenagers‘ substance use in the first year of the pandemic correlated with their parents‘ substance use during that time. Therefore, parents who demonstrated healthy coping behaviors in the face of pandemic-related stress could have helped protect their teenagers. Second, the likelihood of teenagers consuming substances in the first year of the pandemic was lower when their parents made an effort to stay in touch with them and keep track of what their teenagers were doing (e.g., where they were, who their friends were, what was happening at school). As parents paid more attention to their teenagers, substance use among teenagers significantly decreased.
Next Steps: We continue to survey the same teenagers to find out how their substance use has changed in the years 2022 and 2023 in the ongoing pandemic. For now, we recommend that parents support their teenagers by staying in touch, monitoring their activities, and being role models for healthy coping with the stressful life changes brought on by the pandemic.