What sorts of factors play a role in substance use among adolescents and young adults? Researchers from Columbia University and New York University looked at the way young people spend their time to see how it might affect their use of substances such as cannabis and nicotine. The idea was that their findings might suggest ways to help prevent or reverse substance use.

The researchers found that although substance use is decreasing, cannabis use and vaping are increasing. They also noted that how teens spend their time outside of class and the amount of adult supervision they have affect the likelihood of substance use.

More socializing, paid employment and less supervision were associated with an increased risk of using substances like nicotine and cannabis.

The study relied on data from almost 540,000 students in grades eight, 10 and 12. The students were participants in a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future, designed to track trends in the use of cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis and electronic vaping devices among adolescents and young adults between the ages of 13 and 18 years old.

The students’ patterns of substance use and the use of vaping devices were considered in relation to factors such as levels of employment, amount of parental supervision, participation in structured activities, such as sports or clubs, and the amount of time they spent socializing with others. These patterns were further broken down in terms of race, gender and parents’ level of education.

Spending less time socializing and more time participating in structured activities was associated with a lower risk of substance abuse. More socializing and less supervision were associated with an increased risk of substance abuse.

Cannabis use increased the most among adolescents with a paid job, while nicotine vaping was highest among those who socialized a lot and participated in structured activities, but who had less supervision. Cannabis vaping increased the most among teens who socialized but did not participate in activities.

The researchers were surprised to see more substance use among those working a paid job, although it seems to make sense, Noah Kreski, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. It is possible that those working a job may need some way of coping, and they may have their own money with which to buy cannabis. Teens with a job are also spending time with people who are often older than themselves who may have more access to substances. “But I wasn’t expecting paid employment to be such an important factor, especially for a group so young,” Kreski said.

Social situations involving teens, particularly without adult supervision, may provide opportunities for substance use, Kreski, a data analyst at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, explained. “These social settings may cause adolescents to feel peer pressure to engage in substance use in order to fit in.” Cannabis users in particular often seek out other cannabis users, so they form social circles in which the drug plays a big role.

If parents are concerned about the increase in cannabis use and vaping, the best thing they can do is talk to their children from a place of support and compassion, rather than a place of judgement or punishment. Kreski suggests saying something like, “Feel free to talk to me any time about what is going on in school or with your friends,” adding, “Really empower the young people in your life to come to you for answers.”

Two organizations with information for parents on their websites about preventing teen drug use are the Partnership to End Addiction and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The current study is published in Substance Use & Misuse.