Drug abuse among teens has been declining over the past two decades across the United States and Australia, but despite record low numbers, parents, healthcare professionals, and tech experts have recently coalesced around a new concern: social media as a gateway to drug use. As teens disconnect from their parents and online communication becomes the new norm, is social media making drug use a status marker and facilitating addiction?

Two Decades of Decline

Since 2000, teens have been steadily stepping back from recreational drug use for a variety of reasons, including increased parental involvement, educational campaigns, and changing social norms. In one ongoing survey of American youth, Monitoring the Future, use of a number of substances actually fell to the lowest levels since 1975, when the survey was first introduced. According to The Guardian, Australian teens have seen a similar decline in drug use, while Britain has seen modest increases over the past several years, in contrast to their peer countries.

Despite these decreases, alarm about youth drug use continues to rise, with two new issues raising particular concerns: vaping and social media. One device, the Juul, which looks like a small USB drive, is particularly popular among young teens because it’s easy to disguise from parents and other authorities. To understand the motivations behind vaping, as well as the use of other illicit drugs, will likely require a turn to social media.

A Hard Look At Social Media

Many parents are concerned about the increased use of social media among teens, to the point where some have raised the specter of device or social media addiction. Though obviously less physically consequential than drug use, excessive dependence on social media can do real harm, negatively impacting academic performance, interpersonal relationships, and exacerbating mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Though the relationship between social media use and teen drug abuse is complicated, one of the primary concerns among experts is that seeing images of peers or “influencers” using drugs on social media may create a new form of peer pressure. Both the images and captions used tend to glamorize drug use, while the platforms can also make it easy for teens to purchase illicit drugs - even more easily than within their real life social circles. Most people think online drug dealing is primarily restricted to the “dark web,” but for teens, the most insidious forms may be right on Snapchat or Facebook.

Reducing Teen Drug Use - What Works?

Even if overall teen drug use is declining, there’s still a long way to go, especially when it comes to new practices like vaping and using prescription drugs. What parents and other authority figures need if they’re going to intervene is greater knowledge of new drug dealing pathways, as well as clear research on the harms of vaping, marijuana use, and abuse of prescription drugs.

Vaping has been difficult to address among teens for several reasons. First, many adults vape as a culturally acceptable alternative to smoking or even as a step towards quitting smoking. According to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), use of vaping devices among teens increases the likelihood of cigarette smoking later in life. Helping teens make the chemical link from the nicotine in a Juul or other vaping device to lung damage from smoking could help discourage this activity.

As for prescription drugs and marijuana, many teens believe these products aren’t harmful because they’re used in medical contexts - in fact, many researchers directly link increased marijuana use in the US in recent years to the legalization movement. Similarly, drugs like Xanax, abuse of which is epidemic among British teens, can be easily linked both to overprescribing in the community and growing levels of depression and anxiety among teens. In fact, marijuana use, vaping, and abuse of benzodiazepines like Xanax can all be considered a form of self-medication among anxious teens with no outlet for managing their stress. This indicates a central problem: insufficient mental health treatment.

Mental health problems and drug abuse are closely intertwined - indeed, they have the sort of reciprocal relationship in which mental health issues can trigger drug abuse, but drug abuse may also cause isolation and alter brain chemistry, resulting in mental health issues. That’s why Australia’s National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), a health policy group based out of the University of New South Wales Sydney, is currently undertaking research on combined prevention approaches. Known as the Climate Schools Combined Study, the study will follow 6,000 students across 71 Australian schools starting at ages 13 and 14. It will use a modern internet-based intervention strategy to address both substance abuse and mental health disorders.

It’s great news that teen drug use is declining, but new drugs - whether it’s vaping devices or the opioid crisis - will always present a challenge, as will teen-led technologies like social media. If we’re going to keep teen drug use at a minimum, then, we need to stay abreast of these risk factors and keep the lines of communication open. Our teens need our support to navigate the tricky waters of adolescence.

Author's Bio: 

My name is Jessica and I am an independent journalist, freelance blogger, and technology junkie with a passion for music, arts, and the outdoors. One of my greatest passions and joy is assisting communities and business owners. My utmost desire is to help people and business owners to succeed and prosper in their personal and business affairs. I share, comment, write and edit popular news stories.