Why Young People Use Drugs

The substance use of each young person has a function, even when associated with unwanted complications. Paglia and Room  (1998) identify that, for adolescents in the process of developing their own identity, AOD use might have several functions.

Young people, like all people, can come to rely on substance use as a coping strategy in response to life stressors or underlying problems that they believe are insurmountable or irresolvable. In turn, substance-using behaviour can add complexity to those underlying issues. 

Using substances in an effort to reduce emotional distress is commonly referred to as self-medication. The immediate relief is welcome but unfortunately the underlying problem remains unresolved and often the substance use makes matters more complex and difficult to deal with.

Clark, Scott and Cook (2003) refer to “reality  swappers” (p2); particular young people who use substances as a means of accessing alternative experiences in response to, or anticipation of, unpalatable or uncomfortable events and circumstances. This fits more with the world-view of young people who want to be understood as active decision makers and it de-emphasises the role of pathology and deviance. Many young people who develop problems with substance use are attempting to cope with abnormal life circumstances or fix discouraging life situations. More than just relief, substance use can be fun, increase confidence and connect young people with others.

Even in cases when substance use is intentionally self-destructive, it is possible and crucial to recognise and understand their reasons for taking such action.

The United Nations (UN, 2004) reported that the substance use of ‘especially vulnerable’ young people tends to be about relieving the pressures of life deriving chronic stress, alienation and a marginalised social network.

Most young people will experiment with alcohol and potentially other drugs at some stage. Steinberg and Morris (2001) distinguish between occasional experimentation and enduring patterns of dangerous or troublesome behaviour. “Many prevalence studies indicate that rates of occasional, usually harmless, experimentation far exceed rates of enduring problems” (ibid p.90).  Even though experimentation and binge-style patterns of use can be reckless and risky, the majority of young people will go to use alcohol and/or other drugs in a way that is relatively harmless.

The demarcation between recreational and problematic use rarely clear cut. Young people tend to be strongly invested in the notion that for them, using substances is an active choice over which they are able to maintain control. As such, they commonly differentiate themselves from dependent drug users and resist suggestions that their AOD use is problematic or out of their control; even when the related harms are obvious.

Developmental considerations

Each young person’s stage of development and level of maturity have a bearing on the way they use alcohol and other drugs and the potential consequences. While development is continuous and different for each young person, it is useful to consider the characteristics and developmental needs of particular age groups for their influence on substance using behaviour.

Early adolescence  (10 to 14)

  • AOD use is most often experimental
  • Substances used tend to be those that are in close proximity and easily available  (e.g. inhalants, alcohol, etc)
  • All substance use (except inhalants) is illegal for young people in this age range
  • Using is most likely to begin as a shared experience with peers, usually of the same gender
  • Substance use can facilitate social bonding, provide both status and an opportunity to be seen as mature

Mid-adolescence (14/15 to 17/18)

  • More choice over the substances due to an increased ability to procure drugs
  • A broader social network, greater autonomy and mobility and more access to money mean that substances are often purchased and used for a particular effect or to fit within a social scene
  • Poly drug use is more common
  • Increased confidence and maturity can also result in increased risk taking and further experimentation
  • Social Status with some  peer  networks and/ or connecting with  potential sexual partners. For young women, the connections will often be with older adolescents
  • All substance use (except inhalants) continues to be illegal

Late adolescence (18 to 21)

  • Likely to have more settled substances of choice and a pattern of use
  • Drug choice will often be the result of relationships developed in new social circumstances such as work or study

So why does drug use becomes a problem?

Loxley, Toumbourou and Stockwell (2004) reported that there are social, environmental and individual risk factors that act together to predict involvement in early and heavy drug use. The same risk factors contribute to co-existing problem behaviours such as criminal involvement (offending), aggression and self-harm. Besides having common antecedents, these behaviours are often interrelated but vary in frequency, intensity, pattern (random or habituated).  The degree of harm or severity (to self or others) associated with each behaviour also varies.

Drug use becomes a problem when it is the main (or only) way a young person can find to meet their needs to handle their life. Refer to Understanding a young person's drug use to find out about the function of drug use.

Further Resources