Early Adolescent Substance Use During COVID-19

While alcohol use steadily declined among early adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of drugs modestly increased.

prevalence of drug and alcohol use among early adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Read Time: 2 minutes


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as fear and isolation grew within the country, many people of all ages have turned to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. In the early months of the pandemic, adolescents aged 14 to 18 experienced a sharp increase in overdose deaths, attributed mainly to fentanyl. Yet, little research has been done on substance use among children in early adolescence (age 11-13) during this period.

William Pelham and colleagues analyzed data from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study (ABCD study) to track pandemic-related changes in drug and alcohol use among 11- to 13-year-olds. The ABCD study recruited 11,880 children aged 9 to 10 and followed them for ten years, looking at many aspects of their health over time. The young participants completed eight total assessments of alcohol and drug use from 2018 through May 2021.

The 11- to 13-year-olds showed modest increases in use of prescription drugs, inhalants, and nicotine compared to pre-pandemic rates, but very little change in cannabis use. Alcohol use also steadily decreased during the pandemic. Importantly, the rates of use of these substances is very low in this age group, with only 1-3% using any substance at all.

The researchers also looked at the respondent’s household income. Before the pandemic, children from high-income families were more likely to report past substance use than those from lower-income families. However, from June 2020 to December 2020, this trend flipped, with children from lower-income families reporting increased drug and alcohol use while rates among those in higher-income families dropped.

Nearly half of the study participants went back to school in person by May 2021, indicating a partial return to “normal life.” Yet, the researchers note that the differences in alcohol and drug use persisted despite this return to “normalcy.”

Databyte via William E. Pelham III, Susan F. Tapert, María Luisa Zuñíga, et al. Pandemic-Related Changes in the Prevalence of Early Adolescent Alcohol and Drug Use, 2020–2021: Data From a Multisite Cohort Study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2023.