Why are fewer young people taking drugs?

The annual report on school pupil’s drug and alcohol use has been published and yet again it shows that fewer young people have decided to take drugs or drink alcohol.  This is backed up by the Home Office’s analysis of drug use in the wider population which shows a downward trend amongst young adults.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked most often when talking about these findings is to try to understand why there seems to have been this generational change.

The truth is we don’t really know what is influencing young people’s decision making, but we do have some clues that may be helping to shape these complex relationships.  Here are a few thoughts on what might be contributing to this positive trend.


We know that parents and carers have a very strong influence on the behaviour of their children; they help shape their values and set the boundaries for acceptable behaviour both of which are seen as being important protective factors in young people’s lives.

There is strong evidence that if parents don’t know where their children are after 9 o’clock in the evening the children have a higher likelihood of using alcohol.  But it appears there now seems to be fewer young people out late without parents knowing where they were and that parental expectations of young people’s behaviour have increased significantly.

I also wonder whether the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones and social networking means the positive parental monitoring of adolescents isn’t improving their chances of avoiding drug and alcohol misuse.

What we do know is that those young people who are taking drugs have very different perceptions of what their families attitudes are based on whether they believe that their parents know about the drug use.  With many fewer believing that their parents will try to stop them from using if they believe their family already know they have taken drugs.

There seems to be an important message here for parents – that their boundaries and attitudes continue to make a big difference even to those children who do take drugs.

Social Norms

Behavioural scientists have been telling us that conceptions, or perhaps more importantly misconceptions, of the behaviours of others in our peer group may play some part in determining our own behaviours.

The survey of school pupils suggests there has been a small increase in young people saying that none or few of their contemporaries take illegal drugs (up from 84% in 2004 to 89% this year).  It could be that this broadly correct assessment of their peer group is helping to drive the positive changes in behaviour that we’re seeing.

We also know from the questions asked that young people overwhelmingly disapprove of drug use.  Fewer than one in 10 (9%) say that it is okay to try cannabis, and even fewer (2%) say it is okay to try cocaine.

These positive social norms and values may be influencing the decline in popularity in drug use.

Environmental Pressures

Being able to access drugs or alcohol, the levels of enforcement of the law, and what is happening in the school lives of young people can all change the risk factors around drug and alcohol use.

It may be that the big fall – down by almost a third (31%) in the last decade – in young people being offered drugs is an important factor in their changing behaviour. But even amongst those offered drugs we’ve seen an increase in refusals over the same period; with an 18% increase amongst those 15 year olds who have been offered a drug saying they have never taken a drug.

Perhaps just as important has been the actions that schools are taking to reduce the number of exclusions.  Where the DfE report that permanent exclusions have fallen by 59% since 1997.


It seems likely to me that these combination of inputs must be at the heart of what has been a decade long change of behaviour amongst our young people. But it is important to say that we don’t know for certain.

The final thing to note is that we’re not unique.  There seems to have been a decline in youth drug use across much of Europe and other developed nations.  This suggests to me that government drug policy is probably not at the heart of these positive changes.  In this respect perhaps Ken Clarke was right to say that governments have lost the ‘war on drugs’, as nothing they do seems to be affecting behaviour, but maybe young people never saw it in those terms at all.


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