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They’re Doing Drugs? And They’re How Young?!

Drug Use Is Starting Younger

Most people realize that college students and high schoolers wind up in situations where illegal drugs are circulating. But believe it or not, even preteens have access to illicit substances, and for myriad reasons, many of them choose to use.

Drug usage in America begins far earlier than you might expect. In fact, almost one in 10 eighth grade students has used an illegal drug in the past year. Studies show that teenage drug use skyrockets in late high school (around the time when teens get cars), but unfortunately, many of those students have already been doing drugs for several years.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) reports that 5 million American middle schoolers have witnessed a drug deal take place in their school. That is nearly half of our nation’s young teens! To give you an idea of the frequency with which this takes place, CASA found that 9% of middle schoolers see illegal drugs being used or sold on school grounds at least once per week.

Influences of Teen Drug Use

Middle school drug use is often explained in light of the difficulties of adolescence. We all remember what it was like. At 13 years old, most of us were extremely self-conscious and worried about what everyone thought of us. It was stressful. Problems often felt insurmountable. And we really, really, really wanted to fit in with the people around us.

Drugs offer a way for these young teens and preteens to fit in with peers who are using, and believe they look more mature. When so many of the “cool kids” are drinking and doing drugs, substance use can be an extremely tempting option to a kid who’s seeking acceptance.

Middle schoolers may be young, but they experience some of the same stressors as adults who choose to use drugs. That said, a lot of the kids who use are doing so to escape an unstable home environment, mental illness, difficulty in school, or even a sad breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Each of these problems can feel monumental to a middle schooler. 

The Drugs Middle School Kids Are Using

There are no hard and fast rules about which drugs are most popular among middle school kids, but studies do show that they use some more than others. Let’s explore a few of the most common substances used by this age group.

Ranking as the most popular drug among middle schoolers, marijuana has long been considered a “gateway drug,” which means that it paves the way for kids to use harder drugs in the future. Studies show that 11.7% of American eighth graders have smoked marijuana in the past month. To boot, 39.6% report that it would be simple for them to obtain marijuana.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that alcohol is also a pretty popular mind-altering substance among young teens. In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 8.1% of eighth graders had consumed alcohol outside of adult-sanctioned functions such as church communion, and 9.7% had consumed alcohol in the past month. This substance is quite easy to obtain, seeing as many households keep alcohol available in their home. Parents may not notice a couple of beers missing from the fridge, or a few shots of liquor gone from the bottle.

Even some parents may think that drinking is a rite of passage for young teens. If you are one of those parents, think again. The Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine show that 45% of kids who start drinking before age 14 have alcohol addiction issues later in life, as opposed to only 10% of those who wait until the legal drinking age of 21. Also, studies show that young teens who drink alongside their parents at home are more likely drink elsewhere as well.

Prescription Drugs
Prescription drugs (like painkillers and sedatives) are becomingly increasingly rampant on middle school campuses. These drugs can be tremendously addictive — in fact, 45% of kids who abuse these drugs before they’re 15 will become addicted. Adding to that, 60% of teenagers who abused prescription drugs actually did so before they were 15. The lesson to be learned here is that you should always, always, always lock up any prescription medications that are in your home.

Other Drugs
In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse studied the drug habits of young teens and found a decrease in use of inhalants, heroin, synthetic marijuana (which is also known as “spice” or “K2”), and methamphetamine. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that drug use overall is declining, but indicates that different drugs are taking hold.

Talking to Your Child About Drugs
Foremost, it is imperative that you set the example for your child. And that’s pretty simple: don’t do drugs or condone the behavior of those who do. Although it may not always seem this way during the turbulent adolescent years, your child looks to you for guidance in how to behave, and takes cues from you. Monkey see, monkey do.

Although it might feel awkward to bring up drugs with your middle schooler, kids are likely to have access to drugs as early as age 11, so don’t be afraid to have this discussion early. You can begin by asking them what they already know about drugs. Try not to be judgmental, but be honest about how drugs can negatively impact their life and future. Let them know that you understand you powerful peer pressure can be. Let them know that you are always there for them if they ever want to talk about drugs.

Also, there are resources available online to help parents of teens struggling with addiction. Visit our website at for more information on adolescent drug abuse and co-occurring mental illnesses.