Teens and Drugs: Facing the Truth

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on March 14, 2016

Today’s teenagers are exposed to more drugs and more media about drugs than ever before. This makes the challenge for parents more complex—and more vital—than ever before.

According to research from the Prevention Council of Roanoke County, approximately one in 10 teens report having tried cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy—a significantly higher amount than the national average. The Prevention Council’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey measures self-reported substance use as well as sexual activity, violence, depression and other risk behaviors such as seatbelt use.

The most recent survey found that alcohol remains the drug of choice for teens in our region, and use of both tobacco and prescription drugs is common although teens report being aware of the risks involved with those substances. However, changes to legislation and research into medical uses of marijuana have changed teens’ approach to that drug. Teens’ use of marijuana remained about the same between 2009 and 2015, but their perceived risk in using it declined from 59 percent to 41 percent over that period.

“Teens are receiving mixed messages about marijuana,” said Brooks Michael, a Carilion adolescent health educator. “This leads to a decrease in the perception of harm it can do.”

In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) still considers marijuana a gateway drug, along with alcohol and nicotine. NIDA cites growing scientific evidence that marijuana use during the teen years can permanently lower a person’s IQ and interfere with other aspects of functioning and well-being.

“The human brain doesn't fully develop until it's 25,” said Michael. “Using and abusing any substances during adolescence can have long-term cognitive and behavioral effects.”

What Can Parents Do?
Parents can help their teens by:

  • Opening and maintaining communication with them about sensitive topics.
  • Asking them open-ended questions about their exposure to substances and listen in a way that encourages openness.
  • Discussing what you and they both see in your neighborhood and in the media.

“It comes down to parents having consistent communication with their kids,” said Michael. “Keep talking to them—even if they don’t say anything back, they’re listening.”

More resources:
Carilion Clinic Adolescent Medicine
Carilion Clinic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Carilion Clinic Adolescent Health on Facebook
Common Questions from Adolescent Girls
Prevention Council of Roanoke County: resources for parents 
Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: drug guide
Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Research Institute: addiction research
Families Anonymous