Every year since 1975 researchers from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, in conjunction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), have conducted the Monitoring the Future survey. The survey asks eighth-, tenth-, and twelfth-grade students whether they have ever used alcohol, tobacco, or drugs and whether they currently abuse these substances. Recent results of the yearly survey show that after declining throughout the 1980s, drug use among teenagers has increased during the 1990s. The survey also reveals that alcohol and tobacco abuse have remained unacceptably high. This state of affairs prompted Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala to declare that the entire nineties generation of high school students is at risk for addiction and dependence on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Concerned that a number of today’s teens will become drug dependent, many public health officials recommend further study of the causes of teen addiction and the influences on teenagers’ use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Teenagers and experts cite a variety of causes of substance abuse and addiction among young people.
One of the causes of teenage addiction most commonly cited by health specialists is the tendency of young people to underestimate the risk of dependence associated with drug experimentation. According to these experts, teenagers on the verge of adulthood are naturally prone to engage in risky behavior. Smoking, drinking, and drug use may seem “adult” to youths who are not mature enough to understand that such behavior poses a threat to their health and well-being, argue the specialists. Many teenagers discover the risks of substance use only after suffering the adverse effects of addiction. Leah, a sixteen-year-old smoker from Washington, D.C., says she did not understand the dangers when she began smoking. She expresses an attitude typical among teens, saying, “When I first started [smoking] I figured, okay, one cigarette is not going to hurt me.” Leah admits that she is now addicted, and she confesses that she has tried to quit several times but has been unable to do so.
Compounding teenagers’ underestimation of the danger of addiction, according to Lloyd D. Johnston, director of the Monitoring the Future survey, many of today’s teens have not been educated about the risks of drugs and addiction. Looking at the survey results over the years, Johnston notes that the decline in drug use during the 1980s coincided with a public health campaign that taught teenagers to “Just Say No” to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. The demise of that campaign, Johnston contends, is partly responsible for the rising rate of teen substance abuse in the 1990s. He argues that today’s teenagers underestimate the dangers of addiction because they have not received drug resistance lessons in schools, seen antidrug commercials on television, or heard warnings against drug use from parents, community leaders, and peers the way young people in the 1980s did. “Teens from a decade ago knew more about drugs,” he asserts. Johnston predicts that teenage drug abuse and addiction rates will continue to rise in the absence of effective antidrug messages.
Many public health experts maintain that the risk of addiction is overwhelmingly strong for adolescents and teenagers who experiment with what are called “gateway drugs”—cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. According to a 1994 report by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York City, twelve- to seventeen-year-olds who smoke or drink are very likely to try marijuana. Furthermore, the report’s authors assert, the younger children are when they begin to smoke, drink, and experiment with pot, the likelier they are to move on to abuse of cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens. CASA contends that the recent rise in drug use measured by several national surveys, including the Monitoring the Future survey, portends a future of heavy drug use and likely addiction for many of today’s teens. The center’s report concludes, “The more often an individual uses any gateway drug . . . the likelier that individual is to become a regular adult user and addict.” Among those who might agree with CASA’s view is Sabrina F. Hall, a teenager who is a self-described addict and a member of a twelve-step group. Writing in Newsweek, she states, “There’s no doubt in my mind that cigarettes are a gateway drug. About five months after I started smoking I started doing drugs.” Hall’s experience with addiction began when she started smoking cigarettes in the fifth grade.
Noting another disturbing trend, Johnston argues that many teens are receiving mixed signals about the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana from parents and other adults who experimented with drugs during the 1960s. “Today’s parents actually used drugs when they were teens and may feel hypocritical telling their own teens not to use,” he explains, especially since many of them believe that they suffered no long-term adverse effects. Johnston contends that the lack of parental guidance contributes to the rising rate of teen drug use. Some psychologists agree with Johnston’s assessment, maintaining that children and teenagers learn attitudes toward drug abuse and inherit patterns of addiction from their parents. According to George Marcelle, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, “Children who witness adults using alcohol or drugs to cope learn to use it that way.” Teenagers whose parents are addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves, health experts argue. On the other hand, almost all agree, parents can also play a strong role in discouraging teenagers from becoming drug abusers and addicts.
Identifying the causes of teen substance use and dependence plays an important role in the prevention of addiction among teenagers. Health experts agree that there are many overlapping causes, ranging from underestimation of the risks by young people to the influence of parents and other adults. Proposed solutions also run the gamut from public health campaigns and education programs to twelve-step programs to drug testing of children by parents. Teen Addiction: Current Controversies examines the causes of and proposed solutions to teenage drug use and addiction.