10% of teenagers have tried hard drugs by age 17

10 February 2021

Almost a third of 17-year-olds have tried cannabis and one in 10 have tried harder drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, with similar rates of experimentation regardless of parents’ education level, finds a new UCL study.

The research, published today in a briefing paper by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Social Research Institute, examines engagement in substance use and antisocial behaviours among Generation Z as they reached late adolescence.

The researchers analysed new data collected from a nationally representative group of almost 10,000 teenagers who have been taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) since they were born in 2000-02. In 2018-19, when study participants were age 17, they were asked about substance use – including drug taking, binge drinking and smoking – and antisocial behaviours – such as assault, shoplifting and vandalism. The researchers were also able to study how substance use and antisocial behaviours develop across adolescence by comparing data at age 17 to data collected from participants at age 14.

The new study revealed that 31% of young people had tried cannabis and 10% had tried harder drugs by age 17. More than half (53%) had engaged in binge drinking – drinking five or more drinks at a time – and 9% said they had done this on 10 or more occasions in the past year. More than two fifths (45%) had tried a cigarette, and 12% were regular smokers at age 17. As expected, for all of these behaviours, rates had increased substantially since participants were age 14.

The authors discovered differences in rates of substance use according to sex, parents’ education level and ethnicity.

Males reported higher rates of cannabis use than females (34% vs 28%), harder drug taking (12% vs 8%) and binge drinking (56% vs 51%). Young people whose parents were highly educated – holding at least a degree – were more likely to report having tried alcohol than those whose parents had lower level qualifications (89% vs 82%). They were also more likely to have engaged in binge drinking (59% vs 50%). Rates of drug use remained similar among young people, regardless of parents’ educational qualifications.

White teenagers were much more likely to have experimented with substances than their ethnic minority peers. They were twice as likely to report taking harder drugs (11% vs 5%) and almost three times more likely to report binge drinking than ethnic minority teens (59% vs 21%).

As Generation Z approached adulthood, reports of antisocial behaviours mostly remained stable or declined compared to rates at age 14. Prevalence of assault – pushing, shoving, hitting, slapping or punching someone – decreased from 32% at age 14 to 25% at age 17, and levels of vandalism, graffitiing and use of a weapon were similar at both ages. However, reports of shoplifting increased from 4% in early adolescence to 7% a few years later.

Rates of certain antisocial behaviours differed by sex and parents’ education level. Males were almost three times more likely than females to report assaulting someone at age 17 (36% vs 13%). Young people whose parents were educated to degree level or higher reported higher rates of shoplifting than their peers whose parents had lower level qualifications (9% vs 5%). In contrast, prevalence of antisocial behaviours was similar among white teens and their ethnic minority counterparts.

Co-author, Professor Emla Fitzsimons (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) said: “To some extent, experimental and risk-taking behaviours are an expected part of growing up and, for many, will subside in early adulthood. Nevertheless, behaviours in adolescence can be a cause for concern as they can have adverse long-term consequences for individuals’ health and wellbeing, and their social and economic outcomes.”

“The prevalence of alcohol consumption in this study is very similar to that found in an English cohort born 12 years before, and which measured alcohol use around the same age. However, reports of cannabis use in our study suggest a decline compared to rates among this earlier born generation. It remains to be seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected engagement in these behaviours.”

Co-author, Dr Aase Villadsen (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) added: “In relation to our finding for antisocial behaviours we might have expected to have seen a larger increase from the age of 14 to 17 in line with the well-established age-crime curve shown in previous research, whereby these behaviours worsen over adolescence, and then decline again in late adolescence and early adulthood.

“This surprising finding could show that the peak in antisocial behaviours in this generation has been reached earlier than usual and rates have already started to come down by age 17. Or it may be because young people nowadays are engaging in a much lower level of offending than in the past; official figures have shown plummeting rates of youth offending in the last decade. This is a positive and will potentially help to improve the future social and economic prospects of Generation Z.”

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Media coverage of this research

BBC News – One in 10 teens in UK has tried hard drugs

The Times (£) – Middle-class UK teenagers more likely to binge drink and shoplift

The Times (£) – Young, posh and wild: middle-class teen rebels

Daily Mail – Middle-class teenagers are more likely to shoplift and booze

Daily Telegraph (£) – White teenagers twice as likely to have taken hard drugs compared to ethnic minorities

Independent – One in 10 teens has tried hard drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy by 17, study finds

Metro – Generation drugZ! Coke, E and booze binges at 17

The Sun – My beautiful daughter took ketamine and drowned in her bath – it’s become ‘Russian Roulette’ drug for teens in lockdown

Further information

For more information or to speak to the researchers involved, please contact:

Ryan Bradshaw, UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies. T: +44 (0)207 612 6516 (diverts to mobile phone) E: r.bradshaw@ucl.ac.uk

Kath Butler, UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies. T: +44 (0)20 7911 5389 (diverts to mobile phone) E: k.butler@ucl.ac.uk

E Fitzsimons, A Villadsen. ‘Substance use and antisocial behaviour in adolescence: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study at age 17,’ is available on the CLS website.

Study methodology notes

Measures of substance use and antisocial behaviours

Millennium Cohort Study participants were asked to answer a series of questions about their use of substances and antisocial behaviours, both at age 14 and 17. They were asked whether they had ever tried cannabis, and if they had ever tried harder drugs, including cocaine, acid, ecstasy, speed, semeron, ketamine, mephedrone, or any other psychoactive substances. They were asked if they had ever tried alcohol, and how frequently they consumed alcohol; if they had ever engaged in binge drinking, and how often they engaged in this behaviour; if they had ever tried cigarettes, and how regularly they smoked.

 For antisocial behaviours, study participants were asked questions on whether in the last 12 months they had pushed or shoved/hit/slapped/punched someone; deliberately damaged something in a public place that didn’t belong to them; taken something from a shop without paying for it; written things or spray painted on a building, fence or train or anywhere else where they shouldn’t have; and, hit someone with or used a weapon.

In terms of sample characteristics at age 17, 50% were females, 36% had parents with a university degree or above, 13% were of ethnic minority origin, and the UK nations were represented by England (84%), Wales (5%), Scotland (8%) and Northern Ireland (3%). Analyses are adjusted for survey design and attrition, so figures are nationally representative estimates of risky behaviours among young people born in the UK around the turn of the millennium.

 The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) is following 19,517 young people born across the UK in 2000-01, building a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The last survey of parents and children took place in 2018-19 when the study members were age 17. Data from the Age 17 Survey is now available. The MCS is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments, and managed by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Social Research Institute. Visit www.cls.ucl.ac.uk/cls-studies/millennium-cohort-study/

The UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) is a resource centre based at the UCL Social Research Institute. CLS is home to four national longitudinal cohort studies, which follow the lives of tens of thousands of people. The Centre is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). www.cls.ucl.ac.uk

The UCL Social Research Institute (SRI) is one of the leading centres in the UK for multidisciplinary teaching and research in the social sciences. Based at the UCL Institute of Education, and with more than 180 academic, research and professional staff, it works to advance knowledge and to inform policy in areas including gender, families, education, employment, migration, inequalities, health and child/adult wellbeing. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/ucl-social-research-institute.

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