Drug “Experimentation” in Youth Leads to Addiction in Adulthood

Mother talks to her son

To some parents, the trend of teen alcohol use (and some drug use) is seen as typical “youth experimentation.” Some parents have even viewed such activities as normal and “okay as long as it doesn’t go too far.” Some consider youth experimentation with drugs and alcohol part of growing up. They see these as activities that are just a part of the risk-taking behaviors that manifest in teens and young adults.

However, it’s dangerous to normalize teen experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Just one experience with such substances can set the stage for repeat use and addiction. Further, there is data to suggest a connection between experimentation with drugs and alcohol in one’s youth and addiction to such substances later on in life. If parents want to ensure their kids grow up to be sober, clear-minded, and healthy, they must ensure their sons and daughters abstain from using drugs and alcohol.

Drug Experimentation Can Lead to Addiction

Teenager struggling with drug addiction

Previous studies suggested that most teens reduce or cease drug use once they enter adulthood. However, new research funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in JAMA Network Open found that today’s teens typically do not transition out of using drugs and alcohol once they reach adulthood, especially if they were already exhibiting addictive behaviors during adolescence.

According to the findings of surveyed adults who had used drugs repeatedly in their youth, 60% reported continuing to experiment with drugs in adulthood. Conversely, adults who only occasionally experimented with substances in their youth or who didn’t experiment with substances at all had much lower rates of drug use.

“Teens with substance use disorder will not necessarily mature out of their disorders…”

The findings indicate that families should take diligent and consistent action to curb substance abuse among youth now that it is known young people do not just “grow out of” recreational drug use. Dr. Sean Esteban McCabe, the senior author of the study and director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan, had some particular insight on this subject. He said, “Teens with substance use disorder will not necessarily mature out of their disorders… Our study shows us that severity matters when it comes to predicting risk decades later, and it’s crucial to educate and ensure that our messaging to teens with the most severe forms of substance use disorder is one that’s realistic.” It seems that teens no longer just “age out” of substance experimentation.

Youth Drinking Creates Risk for Alcohol Addiction

drunk person

Similar problems exist with alcohol consumption. There has been a long-standing viewpoint that young people will experiment with alcohol as a part of their “finding themselves” experience and that they’ll just “grow out of it.” It is likely that this viewpoint, too, is a myth.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports serious risks for young people who experiment with alcohol. Their studies show that teens who drink alcohol are at a much higher risk of developing alcohol addiction later in life than teens who do not drink alcohol. For example, NIAAA research shows that adults ages 26 and older who began drinking alcohol at age 15 are almost six times more likely to be addicted to alcohol than adults ages 26 and older who waited until age 21 or older to consume alcohol.

Another study compiled similar data, concluding that “The majority of those diagnosed with an AUD (alcohol use disorder, i.e., alcohol addiction) began drinking by the age of 18 years.” That study also showed how teen and young adult alcohol use impairs brain development, impacts cognitive function, and increases the risk for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, dangerous sexual behavior, poor school performance, poor attendance, and failures in the workplace.

Addiction Prevention and Treatment

According to numerous findings and public health reports, young people who use drugs and alcohol, especially when they use drugs and alcohol repeatedly or in high quantities, are more likely to continue using drugs and alcohol in adulthood (and more likely for their habit to worsen considerably) than they are to cease experimentation as they get older.

While it is true that a certain amount of risk-taking and adventurousness goes hand-in-hand with the teen and young adult experience, it’s important not to be complicit or even just neutral when it comes to substance abuse. Today’s drugs are cheaper and more potent than they used to be, creating serious risks among today’s youth. These are life-threatening risks that older generations may not have dealt with when they were young. That’s why it’s so important for the parents and grandparents of today to dispel outdated notions of teen drug and alcohol use as being “normal” and something that young people will just “grow out of.”

Yes, kids will be kids, but that doesn’t mean parents should be okay with their kids experimenting with drugs and alcohol, even just once.

If you have a son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, niece, or nephew who is experimenting with drugs and alcohol and who cannot stop doing so on their own, please insist they get help at a drug and alcohol rehab center as soon as possible. Please do not wait until their habit worsens or causes permanent harm.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, ICCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.