What Does Teen Substance Use Look Like During the COVID-19 Pandemic? What We Know and How You Can Help

By Stop Medicine Abuse Posted April 21, 2021 under Talking to Your Teen

As 2020 saw the pandemic lead to lockdowns and remote learning across the country, many questions swirled about what impact COVID-19 isolation would have on youth substance use. Would fewer social opportunities for teens mean less pressure to drink and use substances? Or would the mounting social isolation and anxiety result in teens turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms — potentially resulting in “an epidemic hidden in a pandemic”?

One survey on pandemic substance use among Canadian teens, published in September 2020, offers applicable insights into how American teens may be feeling and coping during this time. Here are four takeaways:

  • While fewer teens reported using substances after social distancing practices took effect, those who were using increased their frequency. For most substances, the percentage of teens using decreased; however, the frequency of both alcohol and cannabis use increased. Additionally, frequent users may have turned to substances more often, increasing their dependency and putting them at risk of developing an addiction.

    How you can help: Dependency can spiral into more serious issues, but teens are less likely to use when you talk to them about the risks of substances. Learn how to start a thoughtful conversation with your teen.
  • The greatest percentage of teens reported engaging in solitary substance use. However, teens also adapted to the times, with 31.6% reporting that they used substances alongside peers via technology and virtual connections. Finally, 23.6% reported using substances with peers in person, placing them not only at risk of the consequences of the substance, but also of exposure to COVID‑19.

    How you can help: Keep your teen busy and help them get their mind off the pressures of isolation with these activity ideas.
  • Teens concerned about their social image and reputation were most likely to use substances with their peers in person during the pandemic. These teens wanted to convey a “fun, cool and mature image” to peers, and were more likely to disobey COVID-19 distancing measures to that end.

    How you can help: Remind your teen that there’s more to life than what other people think of them. One great way to do that is to help them develop a healthy relationship with technology during uncertain times.
  • Teens prone to depression, stress, and anxiety about the pandemic were more likely to use substances for coping reasons. These teens tended to engage in solitary substance use, which can be a predictor and risk factor of a substance use disorder.

    How you can help: Encourage your teen to embrace their agency in the world by becoming civically active as a way of combatting their feelings of hopelessness. Finally, because teens take cues from their parents about how to manage stressors, read these tips on managing your own anxiety to be a good role model for your teen.

As vaccinations ramp up nationwide and some states relax social distancing restrictions, it’s important to remember that we’re still living in strange times — and that the pandemic has disrupted many aspects of adolescents’ social and emotional development.

Still, your teen’s psychological and emotional journey is unique. Ultimately, what’s the best way to stay attuned to what’s happening to your teen? Talk to them.

Take Action

Increased awareness can only mean increased prevention. Join us in the fight against teen cough medicine abuse by exploring and sharing our free resources.