Risky Teen Behaviors: The 5 Biggies Parents Should Know About

Many teens admit they abuse prescription drugs, but alcohol and marijuana remain most popular.


When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked teenagers if they had ever used a prescription drug that wasn't prescribed to them, 23 percent said "Yes." That was the big news in the CDC's new Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which anonymously polled 16,000 high school students in 2009 about whether they had been drinking, smoking, using illegal drugs, or indulging in other risky behaviors.

Twenty-three percent may sound like a lot, but it's not a big surprise to researchers. Teenage abuse of ADHD drugs, like Adderal, has risen 76 percent in the past eight years, according to a study published last year in Pediatrics. And opioid drugs like OxyContin, which are widely prescribed to adults for pain relief, are the third-most-popular drugs of abuse for teenagers. Both ADHD medications and OxyContin are easy to find in medicine cabinets and teenagers figure most parents will never notice if one or two pills go missing.

The simplest way to end "borrowing" of prescription drugs that are apt to be abused is to keep them out of reach, according to Jennifer Setlik, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, whom I interviewed last year about the ADHD drug abuse study, which she led. "Parents need to keep a very close eye on medications," Setlik said. "A locked cabinet would not be out of line." Locking up prescription drugs also protects younger children against accidental poisoning.

If you come across pills in your child's pocket and wonder what they've got, Pillbox, a nifty new program from the National Library of Medicine, can help you identify the medication by size, shape, color, and printing.

But the biggest news the new survey delivers may be that illegal prescription drug use is the least of a parent's worries. Of the high school respondents:

  •  72 percent had used alcohol at least once in their lives.
  •  37 percent had used marijuana.
  •  8 percent had used hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD or mescaline.
  •  6.7 percent had used ecstasy.
  •  6 percent had used cocaine.
  • Clearly, alcohol poses a greater risk to the greatest number of teens than does any other drug, even marijuana. Add in the fact that drinking alcohol is a major contributor to the number one cause of teenage deaths, motor vehicle crashes, and parents should be most worried about what their children are drinking, and who's driving the car. Indeed, in the 30 days before the survey:

    • 9.7 percent said they rarely or never wore a seat belt while riding in a car driven by someone else.
    • 9.7 had driven once or more when they had been drinking; 15.4 percent of high school seniors say they drink and drive.
    • 28 percent say they had ridden in a car driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol.
    • 41 percent had drunk alcohol.
    • 20.8 percent had smoked marijuana.
    • Keeping kids who drink away from cars would go a long way towards keeping teenagers safe. Teaching them about the dangers of drinking, illegal drug use, and smoking tobacco would help, too, of course. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued new guidelines on teenagers and alcohol use, designed to help parents teach their children to make wise choices. The number one suggestion: Have a strict family policy of no drinking, smoking, or drugs before age 21.