June 17, 2022 -- During the coronavirus pandemic, several substance use behaviors decreased among youths, namely drinking, smoking, vaping, and cannabis use, according to a recent study published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports.
That likely happened because they had to spend more time at home and less time with their friends, the study authors wrote, adding that youth substance use should be monitored in the post-pandemic years.
“One of the driving factors for youth substance use is access to substances,” Hannah Layman, one of the co-authors and a social and behavioral sciences doctoral student at West Virginia University, said in a statement.
“With stay-at-home orders, virtual schooling and social distancing, children have been spending more time with family and are more socially isolated from peers than before,” she said. “Although social isolation from peers may have a negative impact on their mental health, it may just be one of the desirable outcomes of the pandemic when considering substance use in children.”
Layman and colleagues analyzed 49 studies that followed substance use of alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, e-cigarettes/vaping, and other drugs among children, teens, and youths under age 24. The studies spanned across several countries, including 22 in North America and 19 in Europe.
The research team found that most studies across all categories reported reductions in prevalence, except for the category of “other drugs and unspecific drugs,” which included three studies that showed an increase in use and three studies that showed a decrease in use.
Teens and preteens tend to have easier access to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis products, and vaping products and see them as less serious than “hard drugs,” the authors said.
Future research should analyze the long-term effects of the pandemic on youth substance use, the study authors wrote, paying attention to differences by gender and those who face the highest risks for substance use. Previous studies have shown an increase in substance use among youths, particularly among those in low-income neighborhoods or in difficult family circumstances.
“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,” Layman said.
Increased parent or caregiver supervision can help prevent substance use problems, she noted. Early intervention, open support in conversations, and ongoing education about the dangers of substance use can help as well.
“Our findings also identified the importance of improving youth mental health and the value of telemedicine to address young people’s needs during the pandemic,” she said.