Monitoring the Future and Teen Substance Use: Why We Need to Double Down on Education and Prevention

Group of young people gathered together to take a selfie.

In this year’s Monitoring the Future report, we saw an increase in teen vaping, with both nicotine and THC. However, we must remember that these statistics are not just numbers; each represents a child. One child using any kind of substance is one too many.

The survey provides evidence of the importance of education and prevention. Starting early and often, children need consistent messaging about alcohol and other substances. Repeated education and prevention strategies from schools, healthcare professionals, parents, spiritual leaders, coaches and other appropriate community partners is essential. We empower teens to make healthy choices by teaching them lifelong skills to handle a range of emotions and situations in a constructive way.

We know that the earlier a child begins using substances, the more likely he or she will develop a substance use disorder later in life. Specifically, a teen who begins using substances before the age of 15 has a four-time greater lifetime risk for developing a substance use disorder. For teens who are already using, early intervention is essential. By intervening on substance use and behavioral health issues right away, we prevent the likelihood of them experiencing significant consequences in their relationships, academics and future careers.

A SAMHSA initiative known as SBIRT – an acronym for Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment – has been instrumental in guiding teens toward healthier approaches to life. Studies have shown a 40% reduction in the harmful use of alcohol and a 55% reduction in negative social consequences after undergoing brief intervention. That’s why Caron supports universal SBIRT screening for all 9th graders and works with school districts to implement SBIRT programs. In fact, I believe we should consider starting SBIRT as early as 6th grade.

We can learn from our past

The media tends to focus on the MTF statistics that change the most. Given the focus on teen vaping, it’s unlikely we will hear much about alcohol consumption among teenagers. As a culture, we continue to minimize alcohol abuse with teens because there’s a misperception that it’s a rite of passage. Yet there are significantly more teens drinking than vaping, and more young adults dying of alcohol-related diseases.

We must ensure our discussion remains focused on substance use overall. We need to drill past the numbers to think hard about why teens use substances, drink alcohol or use nicotine. We tend to focus on the “substance of the day,” but it is essential that we work on the prevention of all substances and the promotion of healthy living.

Likewise, it’s just as important to pay attention to the shifts in students’ attitudes and perceptions – the underlying driver of substance use. We know that as perception of harm goes down, usage increases, opening the door for consequences we can’t even envision. We didn’t anticipate young people would use electronic vaping devices to consume THC, but the perception among teens that both vaping and marijuana offer minimal risk led to the incredibly harmful combination now causing lung-related illnesses and death for some young people.

The pressure to perform in all facets of their lives can be tremendous for teens – and they perceive that substance use is a mature way to handle it. We talk to teens all the time, and they have the impression that everyone is using substances. But the data shows that most teens aren’t. We need to share accurate knowledge with teens and give them to skills to confidently navigate the choices they face.

Monitoring the Future proves that prevention works

MTF offers valuable information on whether our efforts are working and where we need to focus our energy. When we curtail our prevention efforts, substance use has historically increased. Each year, a new set of 12-year-olds become teenagers, so we must begin the education cycle again.

The long-term decline in teen nicotine use prior to the current vaping epidemic is an example of how consistent messaging focused on prevention can make an impact. Our success led us to take our eye off the ball, and students took the vaping industry’s “safe alternative to smoking cigarettes” positioning as in indication that vaping itself was safe. As a result, vaping and nicotine use has skyrocketed.

We need to double-down our efforts in addressing teen substance use. No matter what the data says about usage of specific substances, the overall focus needs to be on behavioral health and wellness. Prevention works, and we need to remain vigilant.

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