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Substance use among youth declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

Fewer social interactions with peers may be responsible

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Photo (c) itakdalee - Getty Images
While recent studies have found that drug and alcohol use have spiked over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study conducted by researchers from West Virginia University explored how young people in particular were affected by substance use. 

According to their findings, substance use among teens and adolescents dropped throughout the pandemic; the team attributes this to limitations in how young people were able to socialize during the pandemic. 

“One of the driving factors for youth substance use is access to substances,” said researcher Hannah Layman. “With stay-at-home orders, virtual schooling, and social distancing, children have been spending more time with family and are actually more socially isolated from peers than before. Although social isolation from peers may have a negative effect on their mental health, it may just be one of the desirable outcomes of the pandemic when considering substance use in children.” 

Unexpected benefits of social isolation

The researchers examined nearly 50 studies that looked at how young people use tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, e-cigarettes, and other drugs and substances. The participants in all of the studies were under the age of 24, and they focused specifically on substance use during the pandemic. 

Ultimately, the use of e-cigarettes, cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco has declined among young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers explained that, typically, adolescents and teens are likely to get involved with substance use when they’re outside the home and with their friends and peers. However, the pandemic prevented many such gatherings from taking place. 

Instead, young people were spending most of their time at home with their families. Interactions with friends were limited during stay-at-home orders. Because of this, the researchers believe it was difficult to access substances. 

Though these findings are ultimately positive when thinking about young people’s physical health and wellness, the researchers hope that more work is done to better understand the risks associated with youth substance use. 

“Substance use can affect a young person’s body in many ways, such as the development of mental health issues (depression, anxiety, conduct problems, personality disorders, and suicidal thoughts), injuries due to accidents, decreased bone mineral density, preventing proper brain growth and function, delayed puberty, liver damage, and so much more,” said Layman. 

“Our findings also identified the importance of improving youth mental health and the value of telemedicine to address young people’s health needs during the pandemic.” 

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