Why do young people use drugs?
The relationship between drug use and young people is complex. Essentially people (including young people) take alcohol and other drugs for their immediate and short-term effects. The most common reason why people use drugs is to change the way they feel. There is no simple reason as to why they might want to change the way they feel, but some of the many reasons young people give are: “it makes me feel good”; “I want to escape my problems”; and “I need to feel normal”.
Young people use drugs for the same reasons as adults do:
- to relax
- to have fun
- for the euphoria (the rush)
- to feel less inhibited
- to be part of a group (identity/peer pressure)
- out of curiosity
- to cope with problems
- to relieve stress, anxiety or pain
- to overcome boredom
- to provide a reason for living
Youth drug use may be influenced by a number of factors. These include:
The individual: Adolescence is a time of immense physical and emotional change. Young people often feel awkward and self-conscious. They may feel caught between conformity and the urge to be different. Young people may not always have the skills to deal with the stresses and pressures of life to which they are vulnerable. For example, experiences such as neglect, abuse (emotional, physical and sexual) and domestic violence can damage confidence and lead to low self-esteem and little sense of control.
Family and friends: Young people learn about drugs at a very early age, for example, taking medicine for childhood illness. Parents and other adults use tobacco, tea, coffee, aspirin, prescribed drugs and alcohol.
Society: Mixed messages from media, peers, parents, school and work often contradict or conflict with young people’s experience of themselves. Alcohol is a good example: for males (and increasingly for females) there is often the expectation, real or perceived, to “drink like a man” and to be able to “hold your liquor”. Young people get many messages about alcohol and other drugs. Different messages mean young people receive both encouragement and discouragement regarding drug use. Adolescent binge drinking often occurs in social settings with friends and is therefore perceived to have positive recreational outcomes among young people. At the same time health campaigns warn of the negative health and other effects of binge drinking, such as acute intoxication and the increased likelihood of risky behaviour.
The environment: Examples of environmental factors that influence whether an individual will use a particular drug include:
- laws that control supply and availability;
- advertising and promotion of alcohol and drugs, often targeted at young people (research has shown that young people find alcohol advertisements appealing);
- and sports and other event sponsorship by alcohol and tobacco companies. Such promotion makes alcohol consumption look like a lot more fun than heeding the messages of health campaigns about non-drinking or moderate drinking.
The most common drugs used by young people are alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. Cannabis (marijuana) is the most commonly used illicit drug among young people. Inhalant use (although not illegal) is also prevalent among young people.
The prevalence of youth drug use is difficult to estimate for many reasons: drug use is not static; it is dynamic. The impact of a drug will vary from person to person and a person’s use of a drug/s likewise will vary over time. Most drug use by young people is experimental and will not develop into dependency. Lifestyle changes, such as finding a job or forming stable relationships, can affect how long someone engages in drug use. Surveys and other research provide us with a profile and snapshots of youth and other drug use.
A recent survey of over 4,700 secondary school students found:
- almost two thirds had smoked tobacco at some stage in their lives
- 98% had used pain relievers at some time in the past
- 80% had consumed alcohol at some stage in their life, with one-third having done so in the past week
- over one-third had used cannabis
- almost one quarter had deliberately sniffed inhalants, such as glue, paint, petrol at least once during their lives
- 5% had used hallucinogens
- 4% had used amphetamines
- 3% had used opiates, including heroin
- 3% had used cocaine
- 3% had used ecstasy
Youth is a time of experimentation and taking risks. Most young people experiment with drugs as they do with other things, for example: sex, appearance, identity, how far they can stretch parental and other boundaries. Drug use is often perceived by young people as the norm in society (it is practised by their peers, their parents and is a societal occurrence). Alcohol use, for example, is perceived this way.
The consequences caused by regular, prolonged or intensive drug use often do not seem as ‘real’ to young people as the immediate effects (which are usually experienced as positive). Young people often give little consideration to the harm done by such use – such long-term impact seems a very long way away. Licit drugs (alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs) are perceived as least dangerous. Young people’s thinking on illicit drugs tends to change with time and age. Marijuana is a good example of this: in their early teenage years young people have been found to perceive marijuana as the most dangerous drug, by their late teens the opposite perception has been found to be true. Young people’s [potential] drug use has been divided into the following possible ‘stages of use’:
- 12-14: young people may begin with experimental use of drugs.
- 15-17: experimental use continues but becomes interspersed with “binge” use.
- 18-20: any problematic use of substances begins to become integrated into young person’s life.
- 21-24: problematic use of substances becomes entrenched.
Source: (McDonald, 1996). Cited on page 94 of Drugs and Our Community. Report of the Premier’s Advisory Council, March 1996.
It should be emphasised that most young people’s drug use is either experimental or recreational, that is, the ‘stages’ described do not imply a natural progression of use. These ‘stages’ do however give us some indication of what young people think about drugs and what changes in attitudes may occur at different stages in a young person’s life. They also help us develop a general framework of possible trends in actual use.
While the effects of drugs can be stated generally, it is impossible to predict exactly how a drug will affect any one person.
Any given amount of a drug might have a slight effect on one person, but a much greater effect on another person. Drugs can affect people physically, psychologically or both. Effects depend on many factors including:
- how the drug is taken; how much of the drug is taken;
- the physical characteristics of the user;
- whether the person is used to taking the drug;
- whether the person is using more than more than one drug (polydrug use);
- the mood the person is in when using the drug;
- and the environment they are in when using the drug.
Drugs may have an effect on a young person’s lifestyle including:
Social effects: research has found that drug use among young people is often experimental and/or recreational. Young people often use drugs with friends and peers: the social aspect of youth drug use has been found to be of considerable significance. It could be argued that young people find such settings supportive, non-judgemental and a buffer against a world that doesn’t seem to understand them. However, youth drug use can also have negative social impacts at home, at school, in the wider community (that is, outside a particular youth subculture).
Young people can also be vulnerable to the effects of other people’s drug use, for example, family or friends. Such effects include abuse, violence and neglect.
Economic effects: drug use can be expensive to maintain, cause problems at school, and jeopardise employment prospects.
Relationship effects: family problems and other personal problems may be related to drug use. Disagreements over drug use can cause family arguments and affect personal relationships.
Legal effects: possession, use, growing/manufacturing, and selling of illegal drugs can lead to problems with the police and courts. Laws also bind legal drugs, for example, prescription drugs cannot be lawfully obtained without a prescription.
The reasons why young people use drugs are complex and there is no simple solution to youth drug problems. The problem of (youth) drug use is currently addressed in various ways, including:
- reducing the supply of drugs, for example: law enforcement activities in relation to drug trafficking or laws that prohibit the serving of alcohol to people under 18;
- reducing the demand for drugs, for example: accurate, up-to-date drug information and treatment and rehabilitation programs;
- reducing the harm caused by drugs, for example: random breath testing and community campaigns to reduce the road toll; and needle exchanges providing clean needles assisting in the reduction of blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C.
Community group approaches to youth drug use
Groups can have more energy, influence and resources than individuals. Forming a group of interested and committed people can be first step for community action around young people and drug use. There are many ways community groups can approach youth drug use and reducing the harm such use can do to young people, including:
- being informed about youth drug issues;
- being informed about the other kinds of issues that confront young people, for example school/study pressures, suicide, body image issues;
- talking with young people about these issues/concerns;
- putting youth drug use in context: how does the wider community use/not use drugs? what messages does this send to young people?;
- providing young people with good role models;
- providing young people with alternatives to drug use;
- providing young people with information and awareness about the effects of drugs and ways of reducing the harms of using drugs;
- being prepared (discussing, planning and developing a plan around young people and drug use); what to do if problems occur and how to prevent them;
- seeking assistance if needed – assistance can be accessed from alcohol and other drug services.
Methods community groups can adopt
Action planning: Action planning involves identifying and following a series of clear, logical steps in order to achieve the desired outcome(s). Any group can use this model to address community issues, including those involving young people and drugs. Action planning includes: identifying the problem; finding the reasons behind the problem; choosing the goal(s); identifying resources required; identifying and addressing any obstacles; and allocating tasks.
Strategies: There are many possible strategies that communities can implement to address youth drug issues. The best strategies are those chosen by a community as a result of identifying the relevant local issues and needs. Locally developed projects that are ‘owned’ by the community are often the most effective.
Community education and information programs: There are a number of ways of providing community education to raise awareness and promote informed decision making regarding the use of alcohol and other drugs. Strategies include: community forums; peer education programs; health information days; and locally run campaigns.
Community development: Community development initiatives can include: community education/information programs; alternative entertainment activities; alcohol-free nightclubs; working with licensees; designated-driver programs; and working with local media.