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Researchers say teens are vaping more despite smoking less. Getty Images
  • A new report states that teens in the United States are smoking and drinking less as well as using fewer drugs.
  • However, it also reports that teens are vaping more and using cannabis more often.
  • Experts say social engagement and structured activities such as sports and music programs can be a strong predictor of teen substance use.

Over the past few decades, teens in the United States have been smoking fewer cigarettes, using fewer other drugs, and drinking less — including binge drinking — than before, a new study suggests.

At the same time, however, cannabis use and vaping (both nicotine and cannabis) have been on the rise, especially in the past decade, according to the study by researchers led by scientists from Columbia University in New York.

The research included data from 1991 to 2019, covering 536,291 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18.

According to the most recent data, 15% of respondents binge-drank in the two weeks before being surveyed. Another 27% drank alcohol in the previous month.

Meanwhile, 14% reported smoking cigarettes, 12% reported using cannabis, 12% reported nicotine vaping, and 8% reported using other substances in the previous month.

But while total substance use declined during the 28-year study period, except for vaping and cannabis use, researchers said social organization and individual engagement significantly impacted teen substance use regardless of the study period.

For instance, alcohol use, cigarette smoking, cannabis use, and binge drinking were highest among teens with paid jobs and those who were highly social and engaged but had less parental supervision.

Meanwhile, “substance use decreases were largest for the high social groups with lower levels of engagement in activities (like sports) or more unsupervised activities (like parties), as well as those spending significant time at a paid job, the groups with the highest overall prevalence of substance use,” the study authors wrote.

“The results of the study were unsurprising to me. They align with what I’ve seen clinically, particularly when it comes to the increasing prevalence of cannabis use,” Dr. Willough Jenkins, a psychiatry specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, told Healthline. “The study serves as evidence of emerging trends, which is great because there are a ton of misconceptions around teenage substance use.”

David Laxton, LMHC, LPC, NCC, the executive director of Newport Healthcare Seattle, a treatment center for teens with substance use disorders, found the finding intriguing but also not surprising.

“I don’t see these as new trends,” Laxton told Healthline. “Experimentation is, for better or worse, a part of adolescence, as is the desire to push boundaries of what is acceptable or allowable.”

The study singled out low social engagement coupled with structured activities such as sports or music as the strongest predictors of substance use avoidance.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean parents should discourage their kids from being social.

“It’s important to remember that there is a difference between use and misuse,” Laxton said. “Kids who are socially engaged and have a lot of free time — those who are not engaged in school activities — will always be the ones with more opportunity for experimentation. I would be interested to see how many of these kids struggle with substances into adulthood as typically the more socially engaged adults have lower instances of substance misuse.”

However, one thing parents can do is get educated, Jenkins said.

“This will give parents an awareness of current trends compared to how things were when they were teenagers. Many parents believe that it’s a normal adolescent experience to experiment, and it’s important for parents to understand that many drugs are quite different now and have more risks associated with them. Having updated information will help parents provide relevant guidance to their teens,” she said.

“Another step is for parents to start having open, candid, and non-judgmental conversations with kids,” Jenkins added. “If the child is using substances, it’s important to discuss the topic openly and without judgment, with the aim of exploring why.”

And it doesn’t have to all be on the parents. Policy matters, too.

“I think one big thing that could be done is to give more funding to schools for structured school-sponsored extracurricular activities,” Laxton said. “Allow for everyone to find an interest without any cost associated, whether that be the arts, athletics, or the ability to start your own club. The last few decades have demonstrated that no amount of fear-mongering will significantly curb use, so we have got to present kids with viable alternatives.”