What Drugs the Kids Are Using and Why

An expansive new study makes clear the extent of the problem and the importance of parents in avoiding teen drug use.

Teens at a party

If you remember your days as a teen or have a teen in your life, you are probably aware of the role drugs play at that age. In fact, there’s a good chance your teen is using illegal drugs.

A new 3-part investigation by addiction educator ProjectNow offers some remarkable statistics on the drug use by American teens. The survey conducted by the University of Michigan centered on the practices and attitudes towards drugs by about 40,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades.

If you’re wondering whether drug use is a widespread issue, the survey confirms that about 50% of 12th graders have used illicit drugs at some point in their lives. This number has held somewhat steady for the past 5 years, but is higher than it was, for example, in 1992 when it was at 40%.

You can see the yearly statistics of the drug usage here:

What kind of drugs are the kids using?

Alcohol is the drug of choice, with 39.9% of the teens in 8th thru 12th grades using it in the past year. It’s not actually an illegal drug, but alcohol is certainly illegal for the underage kids who appear to have little trouble in getting it. What does 39.9% really mean? As of 2014, this would have come out to about 2.33 million kids between 12 and 17 years old.

Marijuana is the next most popular at 23.7%. Drugs like ecstasy, LSD, cocaine and heroin are used marginally, but an estimated 117,000 young cocaine users should sound alarming. 

Check out the past-year usage chart here:

The relative popularity of the drugs being used is reflected in the attitudes of the kids towards how dangerous they are. Heroin is perceived to be dangerous by close to 85% of 10th graders and is one of the least used drugs. You can see in the chart below how the perception of cigarettes changed over time, with over 70% of the teens thinking it’s dangerous, topping LSD and ecstasy in this category. Conversely, the view on marijuana experienced a drop in the other direction. 20% fewer teens think it’s risky than did just 15 years ago. It’s considered the least dangerous drug, even beating out alcohol. 

Here’s the risk-assessment chart:

What conclusions can we draw from this fascinating information?

One further piece of the survey considers the possible reasons for the drug use by teens. It focuses on their home life and finds that the lowest drug usage is by kids who live with both their mother and father. Interestingly, kids living with only their father had higher drug usage rates than those living with only their mother. Those living without any parents had higher rates across the board, with the most significant difference being in heroine usage - that number shot up 6 times

Certainly, such statistics point clearly to the importance of parental presence in the lives of their kids.

In a further focus on the role parents can play, another part of the survey demonstrates how well disciplining your children works. If you don't allow them to go out on school nights, make sure they do their homework and chores, and don’t let them watch too much tv, your kids are much less likely to get drunk. 

And if you think none of this matters much as "kids will be kids," we should consider the impact this behavior has on the academic performance of students. Teens who smoked cigarettes or marijuana and got drunk were much less likely to receive an A than those who didn’t. In fact, cigarette smokers fared the worst, being 5 times less likely to get an A than their abstaining counterparts.

Of course, as we see, a number of factors team up to affect a kid who uses various types of drugs. Drug usage may be a symptom of larger issues as much as a problem in an of itself. But as 8th through 12th grades comprise such an important portion of an adolescent’s path towards becoming a functioning adult, we must consider how adversely the future of the drug-using kids can be affected.

You can see here a clear correlation between drug usage and various “deviant” behaviors:

A much larger percentage of teen weed smokers got into fights, ran away from home and stole. Again, did they do so because of the drugs or were the drugs simply masking larger issues (perhaps related to their home lives)? While it's important to find out this answer, it's very visible how related is drug use to anti-social behavior.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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