Kids use drugs out of boredom Citing a study by Columbia University in a report by the associated press, Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein note that “children ages 12 to 17 who are frequently bored are 50% more likely to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs. In addition, kids with $25 or more per week in spending money are nearly twice as likely to smoke, drink or use drugs as children with less money.” (2004, p. 469)

Stress as a factor in drug and alcohol use Children and teens that are overly anxious and/or stressed are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. In the Columbia University study, those youngsters who said they were highly stressed were twice as likely as low-stress kids to smoke, drink, or use other drugs. (Hanson et al., 2004, p. 469)

Peer influence

Peer influence is consistently the most important factor in determining drug and alcohol use. (Bahr et al., 1995) Many parents think of peer pressure as someone pressuring their child to use drugs, and this certainly happens from time to time. But the more influential type of peer pressure is more subtle than this. It’s not the devious friend using a child on like a serpent tempting them with forbidden fruit, but simply the softer peer pressure of being around others who are using.

“I first got started using drugs, mostly alcohol and pot, because my best friend in high school was using drugs,” says one respondent. “(He)… learned from his older sister.” Another man reports: “I first started messing around with alcohol in high school. In order to be part of the crowd, we would sneak out during lunchtime at school and get ‘high.’ About 6 months after we started drinking we moved on to other drugs. …Everyone in high school belongs to a clique, and my clique was heavy into drugs.” Hanson et al., 2004, pp. 64, 72)

“Research shows that it is unlikely that an individual will use drugs when his or her peer sdo not use them,” write Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein. (2004, p. 376)

A child’s personal characteristics
Kids who are more prone to thrill-seeking behaviors are also more susceptible to addiction. The child who was eager to ride the roller coaster when he was little may be the one more likely to seek the thrill of drugs and alcohol when older.

What Kids Think About Drugs
What kids think about drugs and alcohol plays a big part in how likely they are to use them. A rate of use consistently tracks perceived risk, with the number of users rising as perceived risk lowers and falling as the perceived dangers increases.

Unfortunately, the majority of 12th graders do not view binge drinking on the weekends as very risky, an attitude that has held constant throughout the years. General disapproval of binge drinking also drops as kids progress through high school. (Johnston et al., 2017)

Attitudes about the harmfulness of marijuana have plummeted in the last decade. Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future study found that only 44.1% of 12th-graders believe regular marijuana use is harmful, the lowest level since 1973. (Wenner-Moyer, 2012) By 2016 this had dropped even further to the lowest levels ever recorded in teh study, with 58% of 8th graders, 44% of 10th graders, and 31% of 12th-graders seeing smoking pot as risky. (Johnston et al., 2017)

Eighty-five percent of teens disapprove of even trying cocaine, one of the highest levels of disapproval for all drugs. Ninety-two percent of 12th graders disapproved of even trying crack in 1990, and has remained relatively the same over the years. When first assessed, the perceived risk in trying crack cocaine (57%) was even higher than it was for heroin (54%). (Johnston et al., 2017)

Eighty-one percent of 8th graders disapproved of smokeless tobacco in 2016.

“Students have long seen heroin to be one of the most dangerous drugs,” and rightly so. (Johnston “et al., 2017)

Media & Cultural Influences
In one survey by Columbia University, 76% of 12- to 17-year-olds said the entertainment industry encourages illegal drug use. As one 16-year-old daily marijuana user reported: “All I know is that almost every song you listen to says something about (drug use). It puts it into your mind constantly… When you see the celebrities doing it, it makes it seem okay.” (Winters, 1997, p. 41)

Ninety-percent of all movies depict alcohol and tobacco use. Over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs are featured in 98% of films, and illicit drugs can be seen in 22%. (Hanson et al., 2004, p. 493)

Many urban youth grow up walking past liquor stores every day, observing the comings and goings of people, which also peaks their curiosity.

It’s not just the modeling of alcohol or illicit substances that primes children for future substance abuse. The way our culture touts medicinal substances as a cure for every ill does so as well. “The constant barrage of commercials, including many for OTC drugs, relays the message that, if you are experiencing restlessness or uncomfortable symptoms, taking drugs is an acceptable and normal response,” write Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein (2004, pp. 31-32).

In one example of how broader cultural values influence drug use, consider the difference between males and females in terms of smokeless tobacco. Boys are around 10-15 times more likely to use these products than girls, even though rates of smoking tobacco between males and females are roughly the same. (Johnston et al., 2017) But such a habit of chewing and spitting isn’t considered “ladylike,” which is why few girls get involved with it.

Combating media influence:

  • Point out the number of celebrities in rehab, so that kids aren’t just familiar with the cues for drug use that they receive from these people, but also its aftermath.

Marketing to kids

If you want to know why America has such a big drug and alcohol problem, all you have to do is follow the money. Pharmaceutical companies spend far more money convincing us to take their medications (the majority of which we don’t actually need) than they do on the drugs themselves. Cigarette and alcohol companies spend billions trying to get us to drink more and smoke more. To put things in perspective, Budweiser alone spends more money on advertising than is allocated for all research on alcoholism and alcohol abusers combined. (Kilbourne, 1989, p. 13) In terms of resources, we have an 800-pound gorilla trying to get us to use substances, and a pigmy monkey tasked with helping us abstain.

Children are not unaffected by all this marketing, and in fact, research shows they are being specifically targeted. Although it is illegal to market cigarettes or alcohol directly to teens, companies do this in many indirect ways. For example, a report by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that kids and teens ages 12 to 20 were most likely to hear radio ads for alcohol, suggesting companies are targeting underage teens by advertising on those platforms most frequented by youth. (Hanson et al., 2004, p. 180) Considering how carefully companies curate their advertising to reach specific niches and their targeted audience, the idea that companies might do this by accident – throw gobs of money at platforms consisting of people who can’t legally by their product–is absurd.

How Kids Get A hold of Drugs & Alcohol

So exactly how are children and teens getting their hands on all these substances? There are a number of answers.

1. Parents
Wherever adults are using drugs and alcohol, children are likely to have access to them as well. They’ll often siphon off small bits of alcohol every day, just enough so that you don’t notice it, and store it up for a drinking binge. Or they simply use whatever you leave lying around.

2. Older brothers & sisters
Especially as children become teenagers, many have older brothers and sisters who are willing to buy their younger siblings drugs or alcohol. Often times there’s a type of blackmail or extortion going on: They’ll buy their younger siblings the goods in exchange for them keeping quiet about some dirt they have on their older sibling (which is often that sibling’s own substance abuse).

3. Friends
Even if you run a tight ship, your kids have a circle of friends who are apt to share drugs or alcohol with them, and chances are good that someone in this circle has a connection. Few teens who are experimenting actually pay for drugs, they are supplied free of charge by friends. Only after they get a taste and either develop a habit or desire something for a party does paying out-of-pocket typically enter the picture.

4. Online marketplaces
The Internet has become a thriving marketplace for substances of all types, especially the quasi-legal ones such as spice, bath salts, or prescription medications like Oxycontin. There are also dark web marketplaces where you can order drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, heroin or cocaine. These are available to anyone with a credit or debit card or an electronic payment account like PayPal or Bitcoin.

5. Dealers
Most illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and so on come from dealers. The stereotypical image of a drug dealer is some gang member standing on a street corner, and this is certainly an option that exists. But most dealers are more casual – they are typically drug users themselves who sell to acquaintances on the side to support their habit. They’ll even buy teens alcohol if they can make money doing it.

6. Strangers
If all the other means prove elusive, teens will sometimes wait outside a liquor store and scope out someone they think might buy them alcohol for a fee. Since many alcoholics are short on cash, it’s often not that hard to find. Drugs can be found in the exact same way. Teens hang out at the mall or outside gas stations, and can often guess with reasonable accuracy who might have access to drugs, and approach them about getting some.

7. Rogue stores & fake IDs
Some liquor stores and convenience stores have staff who are willing to sell to underage minors, or who don’t check IDs, and word of mouth about these outlets soon gets around. Occasionally a teen will get their own fake ID, but this is probably the least common of all the methods.

How they get the money Teens can come up with creative ways to get the currency for drugs or alcohol:

  • Selling or pawning items
  • Selling (or trading) their own prescriptions for things like Adderall for alcohol or marijuana