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Why do adolescents begin using drugs and what can we do?

November 9, 2016 2:06 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

*This post was written by AF, a 22-year-old student at CSU Channel Islands, born and raised in Ventura County and passionate about keeping the youth and other members of the community safe, informed, and responsible.

It’s obvious that adolescent drug use is a dangerous public health problem. There are several different organizations and programs that try, with various levels of success, to address the adolescent drug use problem. Many adolescents experiment with drugs at one point or another, but this experimentation can easily become addiction and abuse. One thing Straight Up believes is that experimentation with drugs and alcohol should not be seen as innocent teen behavior or a rite of passage. So for prevention/intervention programs like Straight Up or many others, it is important to know why adolescents might begin using drugs to have a more targeted and effective plan of action.

My photo from a Video Advocacy Workshop led by Straight Up

My photo from a Video Advocacy Workshop led by Straight Up

As with many concepts, the motivations behind adolescent drug use are complex and varied. A risk factor can be defined as “an individual attribute, individual characteristic, situational condition, or environmental context that increases the probability of drug use or abuse or a transition in level of involvement with drugs” (Svensson, p. 68, 2000). Explanations for drug use often come from a biological, psychological, or social risk factor standpoint. For some drug users, one of those categories dominates, but for others, their experiences are more complex.

Some biological factors may come from differences in the brain or family histories. Males tend to have a higher rate of drug use, so there is some evidence that there is some gender difference in the brain that leads to drug use (Aspy et al., 2014). The other major biological factor may be seen in family history of drug use, which may point to a genetic component behind drug use (Deas & Thomas, 2002). Whether these differences truly are more about biology or environment is unclear.

Psychological risk factors are prevalent in drug use as well. Adolescents with low self-esteem, poor coping skills, or certain personality factors such as high novelty and sensation-seeking and a willingness to engage in nonnormative or delinquent behavior are at greater risk of using drugs (Deas & Thomas, 2002; Vega et al., 1993). Additionally, adolescents with psychiatric distress or disorders, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or ADHD may also be a greater risk and may use drugs as a way to self-medicate (Deas & Thomas, 2002).

Social risk factors may be the most important, especially for prevention programs, because biology cannot be changed by a program or organization and psychological factors can be tricky as well. Social factors, including those risks at an individual, school/community, or family/peer level are more controllable.

Individual social risk factors include some of those personality factors including rebelliousness, attitudes favorable towards certain drug use, and poor future educational aspirations (Newcomb et al., 1986; Oesterle et al., 2012). Adolescents who have faced many stressful or traumatic live events or other life disruptions may face greater risk (Deas & Thomas, 2002).

Some risks exist in the school or community context, including low extracurricular involvement, poor grades, frequent truancies, community disorganization, and perceived or actual availability of drugs (Aspy et al., 2014; Svensson, 2000; Newcomb et al., 1986; Oesterle et al., 2012). Many people believe drugs are an urban/inner city problem, perhaps due to media coverage of those issues, but rural communities face numerous risks related to education, income, and health that make it so rates of drug use similar in rural and urban environments (Farrell et al., 1992).

Family and peer risks include poor parental monitoring, high family conflict, peer deviance, familial or peer approval of certain drug use, and familial or peer drug use (Deas & Thomas, 2002; Oesterle et al., 2012). The last two factors are very important. When your family or friends do not disapprove of drug use, there is a greater chance you will try them, especially if you see your friends or family using drugs as well.

There is a great diversity in paths people take into drug abuse, with a combination of any or all of the risks mentioned above. The research agrees that the factor itself matters less than how many factors someone is faced with. Prevention programs that work to decrease the number of risks someone faces can be helpful. Straight Up, for example, is a good source for adolescents to get involved in something extracurricular and become positive peer advocates, either in volunteering, creating PSAs, or participating in various Improv or Social Change workshops. These activities may support a sense of positive self-esteem in participants. Other programs may find it beneficial to teach coping skills to adolescents themselves, or to parents and families, since family dynamics and parenting skills impact adolescents deeply. No matter what programs do, we need to understand that everyone has a very different journey into drug use and there is no one size fits all strategy.


  • Aspy, C. B., Tolma, E. L., Oman, R. F., & Vesely, S. K. (2014). The influence of assets and environmental factors on gender differences in adolescent drug use. Journal Of Adolescence37(6), 827-837. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.05.006
  • Deas, D., & Thomas, S. (2002). Comorbid psychiatric factors contributing to adolescent alcohol and other drug use. Alcohol Research & Health26(2), 116-121. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/
  • Farrell, A. D., Anchors, D. M., Danish, S. J., & Howard, C. W. (1992). Risk factors for drug use in rural adolescents. Journal of Drug Education22(4), 313-328. doi:10.2190/3V12-D8FV-U07X-MN7F
  • Newcomb, M. D., Maddahian, E., & Bentler, P. M. (1986). Risk Factors for Drug Use among Adolescents: Concurrent and Longitudinal Analyses. American Journal of Public Health76(5), 525-531. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/
  • Oesterle, S., Hawkins, J. D., Steketee, M., Jonkman, H., Brown, E. C., Moll, M., & Haggerty, K. P. (2012). A cross-national comparison of risk and protective factors for adolescent drug use and delinquency in the United States and the Netherlands. Journal of Drug Issues42(4), 337-357. doi:10.1177/0022042612461769
  • Svensson, R. (2000). Risk Factors for Different Dimensions of Adolescent Drug Use. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse9(3), 67. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/
  • Vega, W. A., Zimmerman, R. S., Warheit, G. J., Apospori, E., & Gil, A. G. (1993). Risk factors for early adolescent drug use in four ethnic and racial groups. American Journal of Public Health83(2), 185-189. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/databases/psycinfo/