The life stage of adolescence is a particularly sensitive period in the establishment of the individual’s own identity, so it seems necessary to analyze what circumstances may favor or prevent harmful risk behaviors in this age group, such as substance abuse.

In the work STUDIES carried out by the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality (2018) a statistic was prepared indicating the state of consumption on a national level in 2016-2017, analysing various variables such as age of onset, sex or type of substance consumed in the adolescent population (14-18 years).

These data show how, despite the fact that the start of consumption of substances such as alcohol, tobacco or certain drugs such as cannabis has been delayed by a few months in comparison with a decade earlier, the frequency and volume of consumption is now greater than in previous years. In this article we will see what factors may be influencing the consumption of drugs in adolescence .

Characteristics of the adolescent stage

As indicated at the beginning, adolescence is a vital time of significant psychological complexity, since a confluence of various factors of different kinds (physiological, emotional and social) interact in order to consolidate in the subject his own “I”. For this reason, in these ages, behaviours of self-affirmation, of differentiation of the familiar reference figures and even the appearance of certain oppositional behaviours and certain challenges before the norms and limits imposed from the outside are very frequent.

Another factor that plays an important role is the increase in the influence that the group of equals exercises over the individual, to the detriment of those provided by parental figures, which enjoyed greater significance during the childhood period. Thus, adolescents feel significant group pressure and become very vulnerable to possible social rejection or acceptance.

As a response to the two aspects exposed (the need for self-affirmation and the decrease of parental influence), we observe in this population group an increase in the search for sensations and the experimentation of novelty by themselves , in an independent way and demanding more and more indices of autonomy. Adolescents tend to show a self-centred personal profile, which in some cases leads to the rejection of help or support from the adult.

Thus, the adolescent psyche is somewhere between a childish type of reasoning (more impulsive and irrational) and a more adult perspective (more serene and reflective). For this reason, although adolescents show ideas, thoughts and concerns that are different from those of children, it is still very complex for them to adopt more mature perspectives, which is why they are especially vulnerable to advertising campaigns that associate substance use with a successful or socially attractive personal profile .

Nature of substance use

The phenomenon of substance consumption can be defined as a multifactorial aspect, since the effect it has on a person is the result of three large variables that come together:

  • The individual, with his physical and psychological characteristics.
  • The context, where social, cultural, economic and family factors intervene, etc.
  • The substance of consumption, which to different degrees and in different ways has a pharmacologically active effect on the body and can lead to the development of dependence.

Within each of these main areas, there are a series of more specific factors that can have a considerable influence on the potential consumption of substances during adolescence , although it is true that they cannot be said to exercise a direct causal role.

Risk factors

Risk factors are those circumstances that may increase the likelihood of consumption, while protective factors describe practices that decrease that proportion of occurrence of such behavior.

1. Individual factors

These are the risk factors present in individuals.

1.1. Values and beliefs

It consists of the attitudes, beliefs, and ethical and moral values transmitted by the family and by the peer group in relation to one’s own consumption of substances or to other more general vital aspects, for example, responsibility, the importance of health, etc.

1.2. Social skills

Social skills and resources, such as competence in interpersonal interaction behaviours or the set of personal resources available to the adolescent to establish satisfactory relationships adapted to reality are crucial for the adolescent to be able to express his/her opinions, assert him/herself and be critical in the face of what situations and circumstances of risk.

1.3. Self-concept and self-esteem

These elements are defined by the way an individual describes himself, by the personal image he has of his “self” and by the degree of personal security reflected .

Thus, it has been possible to demonstrate that individuals with an adequate level of these two phenomena are less vulnerable in risk situations. On the other hand, when self-esteem is low, consumption can perform a function of avoiding vital frustrations, which can precipitate consumption.

1.4. Experimentation

Experimentation, understood as a phenomenon intrinsic to the adolescent stage, can be linked to situations of consumption, strengthening its occurrence if they are associated with pleasant or positive contingencies such as having fun, meeting other people, etc.

1.5. Emotional and behavioral self-control

Self-control can be impaired at this stage of life due to the presence of facets such as impulsivity and the need for immediate gratification, so common in the teenage years.

2. Relational factors

These factors have to do with the social contexts through which adolescents pass.

2.1. School

The school, as one of the main educational and socializing agents, exerts a very relevant influence. It has been observed that students with school failure or high absenteeism rates, as well as negative attitudes towards their peers or teachers tend to have a higher risk of consumption.

Peer group

At these ages friendships become the main social reference , so the perception of feeling integrated and accepted by this group will determine to a great extent their behaviour and attitudes. In groups that are favourable to consumption, there is a greater probability of risk for the adolescent.

2.3. Leisure contexts

The relationship between the organization of leisure time and the economic aspect, from which there can be a strong association between the free time available to adolescents (the weekend) and the consumption of substances.

2.4. The family

The findings show that when the parental environment is unstructured or interferes with the establishment of satisfactory relationships between the members, there is a greater likelihood of consumption in young people.

On the other hand, the attitude of the family towards the consumption habit will also be fundamental as a risk factor; the greater the acceptance and standardization, the higher the rate of consumption of substances.

3. Social factors

This category includes the most widespread social phenomena.

3.1. Knowledge, accessibility and volume of substance advertising

In this, the level of transmission of information received by the adolescent from the main reference figures plays a fundamental role: family, school and peer group. This will determine the adolescent’s perception of consumption, facilitating or hindering the avoidance of such action.

3.2. The socio-economic nature of the social environment of interaction

In this, higher consumption rates are observed in community areas with precarious conditions in terms of economic level and capacity for social integration.

By way of conclusion

Throughout the article, various types of aspects have been listed that may influence the development of consumer behaviour in the adolescent population. It has been possible to verify that this set of factors presents a multidimensional and correlational character, which is not causal.

Even so, many of them are related to the type of educational development experienced by the young people and, therefore, to the level of success in the internalisation of competences and personal values such as responsibility and autonomy, an adequate degree of assertiveness, social skills or the level of self-esteem acquired, as well as the index of supervision and the communicational quality between the different socialising agents and the child.

In this way, it seems clear that working on the promotion of households with good family integration where there is a combination of norms, limits, adaptive values and positive emotional accompaniment will be a determining factor in ensuring that future statistics reflect lower values in terms of substance consumption in the adolescent population.

Bibliographic references:

  • Alegret J., Comellas M.J., Font P. and Funes, J. (2006). Adolescents, relationships with parents, drugs, sexuality and body cult. Family and Education Collection No. 5.
  • “Minors are trying drugs later and later, but they’re increasing their use.” EL PAÍS (2 April 2018). Original source: