The risks of summer for teens

by Rima Himelstein, M.D.

Listening to music, watching TV, late nights, sleeping in, and no homework ... no wonder teenagers can’t wait until summer. The trouble with summer is that teens are more likely to try drugs during this time.  A recent study found that during the summer months, teenagers are more likely to try alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana for the first time. 

Each day during June and July... 

  • 11,000 teens try alcohol
  • 5,000 teens try cigarettes
  • 4,500 teens try marijuana

These rates are almost double those of most other months. 

Experimentation may be considered a part of normal adolescent development. However, couple this with other parts of normal adolescent development—like feeling indestructible and not considering the consequences of their actions—and we have risk factors for trying drugs and, possibly, drug dependence.

Experimentation can be followed by addiction.  Look at cigarettes and alcohol. It is estimated that 85 percent of adolescents who smoke two or more cigarettes completely and overcome the initial discomfort will go on to become regular smokers. Young people who begin drinking before age 15 are much more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21. Addiction leads to school failure and increased risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide.

So why the trouble with summer?  Teens are not in school during the summer months, so they have more free time, fewer responsibilities, and significantly less adult supervision. Given these circumstances, adolescents are more likely to find themselves with opportunities to experiment with drugs or alcohol.

Prevention is the best medicine. There is evidence that teens may be “protected” from potential substance abuse by: 

  • Strong social bonds with family or adults outside of the family
  • The ability to discuss problems with parents
  • Frequent shared activities with parents
  • The consistent presence of a parent during at least one part of the day, such as when awakening, when having dinner, or when going to bed
  • Commitment to school
  • Religiosity
  • Involvement in social activities

Parenting teenagers is not easy.  Parents must be attentive to their teens while at the same time encourage their independence. Being attentive involves knowing where their teenage children are and knowing who they are with.  It also involves spending time with your teenager; the time spent with your children should not get smaller as they get bigger.

Talk to your teenager about substance abuse 12 months a year—not just in June and July, and not just once. Helping your children remain drug-free makes for a truly great summer. 

Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist. 

What have you been doing with your teenager lately to build protective factors?