Alcohol Use by Young Adolescents Drops During Pandemic

Heidi Splete

August 31, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic altered patterns of substance use by early adolescents to less alcohol use and greater use and misuse of nicotine and prescription drugs, based on data from more than 7000 youth aged 10-14 years.

Substance use in early adolescence is a function of many environmental factors including substance availability, parent and peer use, and family function, as well as macroeconomic factors, William E. Pelham III, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues wrote. "Thus, it is critical to evaluate how substance use during early adolescence has been impacted by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a source of large and sustained disruptions to adolescents' daily lives in terms of education, contact with family/friends, and health behaviors."

In a prospective, community-based cohort study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the researchers conducted a three-wave assessment of substance use between May 2020 and August 2020, and reviewed prepandemic assessments from 2018 to 2019. The participants included 7842 adolescents with an average age of 12 years who were initially enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study at age 9-10 years. At the start of the study, 48% of the participants were female, 20% were Hispanic, 15% were Black, and 2% were Asian. Participants completed three online surveys between May 2020 and August 2020.

Each survey included the number of days in the past 30 days in which the adolescents drank alcohol; smoked cigarettes; used electronic nicotine delivery systems; smoked a cigar, hookah, or pipe; used smokeless tobacco products; used a cannabis product; abused prescription drugs; used inhalants; or used any other drugs. The response scale was 0 days to 10-plus days.

The overall prevalence of substance use among young adolescents was similar between prepandemic and pandemic periods; however fewer respondents reported using alcohol, but more reported using nicotine or misusing prescription medications.

Across all three survey periods, 7.4% of youth reported any substance use, 3.4% reported ever using alcohol, and 3.2% reported ever using nicotine. Of those who reported substance use, 79% reported 1-2 days of use in the past month, and 87% reported using a single substance.

In comparing prepandemic and pandemic substance use, the prevalence of alcohol use in the past 30 days decreased significantly, from 2.1% to 0.8%. However, use of nicotine increased significantly from 0% to 1.3%, and misuse of prescription drugs increased significantly from 0% to 0.6%. "Changes in the rates of use of any substance, cannabis, or inhalants were not statistically significant," the researchers wrote.

Sex and ethnicity were not associated with substance use during the pandemic, but rates of substance use were higher among youth whose parents were unmarried or had lower levels of education, and among those with preexisting externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Youth who reported higher levels of uncertainty related to COVID-19 were significantly more likely to report substance use; additionally, stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms were positively association with any substance use during the pandemic survey periods. Youth whose parents experienced hardship or whose parents used alcohol or drugs also were more likely to report substance use.

"Stability in the overall rate of substance use in this cohort is reassuring given that the pandemic has brought increases in teens' unoccupied time, stress, and loneliness, reduced access to support services, and disruptions to routines and family/parenting practices, all of which might be expected to have increased youth substance use," the researchers noted. The findings do not explain the decreased alcohol use, but the researchers cited possible reasons for reduced alcohol use including lack of contact with friends and social activities, and greater supervision by parents.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the comparison of prepandemic and pandemic substance use in younger adolescents, which may not reflect changes in substance use in older adolescents. The study also could not establish causality, and did not account for the intensity of substance use, such as number of drinks, the researchers wrote. However, the results were strengthened by the longitudinal design and large, diverse study population, and the use of prepandemic assessments that allowed evaluation of changes over time.

Overall, the results highlight the importance of preexisting and acute risk protective factors in mitigating substance use in young adolescents, and suggest the potential of economic support for families and emotional support for youth as ways to reduce risk, the researchers concluded.

Predicting Use and Identifying Risk Factors

"It was important to conduct research at this time so we know how trends have changed during the pandemic," Karalyn Kinsella, MD, a pediatrician in private practice in Cheshire, Connecticut, said in an interview. The research helps clinicians "so we can better predict which substances our patients may be using, especially those with preexisting psychological conditions and those at socioeconomic disadvantage.

"I was surprised by the increased prescription drug use, but it make sense, as adolescents are at home more and may be illicitly using their parents medications," Kinsella noted. "I think as they go back to school, trends will shift back to where they were as they will be spending more time with friends." The take-home message to clinicians is the increased use of nicotine and prescription drugs during the pandemic, and future research should focus on substance use trends in 14- to 20-year-olds.

The ABCD study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, and the current study also received support from the National Science Foundation and Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Kinsella had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.

J Adolesc Health. 2021;69:390-7. Full text

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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