8 Reasons teens try alcohol and drugs

There is no single reason for teenage alcohol and drug use. In “How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t,” Dr. Neil I. Bernstein explains some of the core issues and influences behind teenage drug and alcohol use.

With our three coalitions working to prevent youth substance use, it’s important that our community collectively understands some of the top reasons why teens try alcohol and drugs.


Teenagers see lots of people using various substances. They see their parents and other adults drinking alcohol, smoking and, sometimes, abusing other substances. Also, the teen social scene often revolves around drinking and smoking pot. Sometimes friends urge one another to try a drink or smoke something, but it’s just as common for teens to start using a substance because it’s readily available and they see all their friends enjoying it. In their minds, they see drug use as a part of the normal teenage experience.


TV and Movies:

The American Academy of Pediatrics published an article analyzing the role of Media in introducing young people to drug use. The fact that advertising is effective is obvious; just consider the fact that there are companies willing to spend more than $25 billion every year on advertising tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs. Research has revealed that advertising may actually be responsible for up to 30% of adolescent tobacco and alcohol use.

Also, alcohol remains the number one drug portrayed on American television: 1 drinking scene is shown every 22 minutes, compared with 1 smoking scene every 57 minutes and 1 illicit drug use scene every 112 minutes. More than one-third of the drinking scenes are humorous, and negative consequences are shown in only 23%


Social Media:

American teens ages 12 to 17 who in a typical day spent any time on social networking sites were at increased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use. The survey found that 70% of 12-to-17-year-olds spent time on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites in a typical day.

Compared to teens that spent no time on social networking sites in a typical day, teens that did were:

  • 5 times likelier to have used tobacco
  • 3 times likelier to have used alcohol
  • Twice as likely to have used marijuana



When teens are unhappy and can’t find a healthy outlet for their frustration or a trusted confidant, they may turn to chemicals for solace. Depending on what substance they’re using, they may feel blissfully oblivious, wonderfully happy or energized and confident. The often rough teenage years can take an emotional toll on children, sometimes even causing depression, so when teens are given a chance to take something to make them feel better, many can’t resist.


Teens who can’t tolerate being alone, have trouble keeping themselves occupied, or crave excitement are prime candidates for substance abuse. Not only do alcohol and drugs give them something to do, but those substances help fill the internal void they feel. Further, they provide a common ground for interacting with like-minded teens, a way to instantly bond with a group of kids.


Different rebellious teens choose different substances to use based on their personalities. Alcohol is the drug of choice for the angry teenager because it frees him to behave aggressively. Methamphetamine, or meth, also encourage aggressive, violent behavior, and can be far more dangerous and potent than alcohol. Marijuana, on the other hand, often seems to reduce aggression and is more of an avoidance drug. LSD and hallucinogens are also escape drugs, often used by young people who feel misunderstood and may long to escape to a more idealistic, kind world. Smoking cigarettes can be a form of rebellion to flaunt their independence and make their parents angry. The reasons for teenage drug-use are as complex as teenagers themselves.


Drugs and alcohol work quickly and the initial effects feel really good. Teenagers turn to drug use because they see it as a short-term shortcut to happiness.


Many shy teenagers who lack confidence report that they’ll do things under the influence of alcohol or drugs that they might not otherwise. This is part of the appeal of drugs and alcohol even for relatively self-confident teens; you have the courage to dance if you’re a bad dancer, or sing at the top of your lungs even if you have a terrible voice, or kiss the girl you’re attracted to. And alcohol and other drugs tend not only to loosen your inhibitions but to alleviate social anxiety. Not only do you have something in common with the other people around you, but there’s the mentality that if you do anything or say anything stupid, everyone will just think you had too many drinks or smoked too much weed.


Perhaps the most avoidable cause of substance abuse is inaccurate information about drugs and alcohol. Nearly every teenager has friends who claim to be experts on various recreational substances, and they’re happy to assure her that the risks are minimal. Educate your teenager about drug use, so they get the real facts about the dangers of drug use.

If you’re a parent, grandparent or caregiver, talk to your kids about the dangers of experimenting with drugs and alcohol and check out these tips for preventing drug and alcohol use.

If you’re interested in making it less likely that teens in your community will use drugs or alcohol, contact us about joining a local coalition!