American teenagers may finally be starting to behave. A new study found that teens are smoking less, drinking less and doing fewer drugs.
Even smoking marijuana is down among 8th and 10th graders, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey of American teens. Although marijuana use among high school seniors has held steady since 2011 — 36 percent of 12th graders reported smoking pot.
“Why is all this happening?” asked Lloyd Johnston, who has led the survey since it began in 1975. “Even though we have some hypotheses, I don’t know that we necessarily have the right ones.”
Experts say that the overall decrease in smoking tobacco may be responsible for the decline. According to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, smoking for teens is typically a gateway for using drugs and alcohol. But with fewer teens smoking tobacco, they’re less likely to move on to harder things.
Only 1.8 percent of high school seniors said they smoked a half pack of cigarettes or more a day, whereas nearly 11 percent of high school seniors said they smoked that much in 1991. Even e-cigarette use fell among 12th graders, from 16 percent last year to 12 percent this year.
Alcohol has traditionally been the most popular illicit substance for teenagers, and it has also seen a decline in use recently. In 2006, 13 percent of high school seniors reported binge drinking, but in 2016 only 4.4 percent of 12th graders reported binge drinking — a two-thirds drop.
“Since 2005, 12th-graders have also been asked about what we call ‘extreme binge drinking,’ defined as having 10 or more drinks in a row or even 15 or more, on at least one occasion in the prior two weeks,” Johnston said in a press release. “Fortunately, the prevalence of this particularly dangerous behavior has been declining as well.”
Some experts, like Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believe that social media and video games might be behind the decline in drug and alcohol use among teens. Volkow says that teens may be too busy at home and away from peer pressure to drink and smoke.
“There may be a protective effect brought about by the fact that they don’t have so many occasions to get together where the use of drugs would be facilitated,” Volkow said to USA Today, adding that she doesn’t yet have hard data to support this idea. “It’s wonderful to see, but understanding it will be very important because then we can try to emulate it, be proactive and try to sustain it.”
States that have legalized medical marijuana have seen a rise in daily and monthly marijuana use among teens. However, the increase is not as large as Volkow feared it may have been.
Teens have also largely been able to avoid the opioid epidemic that is plaguing young adult communities. For example, Vicodin use fell from 10 percent a decade ago to just 2.9 percent this year.
“That is gigantic good fortune, and really I don’t think we as a field or society more generally have spent as much time as we should have celebrating and reflecting on why today’s kids are so great in this regard,” Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University told USA Today.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.