Drug and alcohol use can start surprisingly young: the average age of first use is between 13 and 15. Learn about the dangers of middle school drug use and what you can do to help.

As a mom, dad, sibling or guardian of a middle schooler, it may be hard to believe that your preteen could be using drugs or drinking. However, rates of drug use in middle school and the number of 11- or 12-year-old kids doing drugs in the United States is alarmingly high. 

The number of teens and preteens using illicit substances has gradually declined over the past decade since it peaked in the late 1990s. Despite this, more than 1 in 20 8th-grade students reported using alcoholmarijuana, or illicit drugs in 2018. On average, kids try drugs for the first time when they’re between the ages of 13 and 15. The younger someone is when they try drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted.

Why Middle Schoolers Use Drugs

Middle school is when kids first become teenagers. At this age, they start stretching their wings and testing out some of the newfound independence that they are starting to have. Activities or substances that are forbidden can often seem appealing. 

There are a number of reasons why young teens use drugs. Every kid is different, and each has different factors in their life that may lead them to try drugs. The possible causes of substance abuse among youth range from curiosity to a desire to fit in, to try to self-treat mental health issues.


Popularity is one of the biggest concerns among middle school students. At this age, social dynamics change abruptly. Making and keeping friends becomes more complicated. It is common for students to form cliques, which can put an immense amount of peer pressure on other students trying to fit in. Middle schoolers may be pressured to try drugs, which they may end up doing because they think it could help them be popular.

Emotional Stress

The physical, emotional and social changes that come with the onset of puberty add a considerable amount of stress to young minds. Bullying is especially prevalent and harmful at this age. These worries are added to heavier coursework at school and greater pressure for academic achievement. With all of this extra stress and without the coping skills to deal with it, it is no surprise that mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are common. Middle school students may be desperate for a quick fix or escape and may turn to drugs or alcohol as a solution.

Middle School Drug Use Facts and Statistics

Since the late 1990s, the overall rate of drug and alcohol use in middle school has been slowly dropping. That said, drug abuse among children does not seem to be going away anytime soon. The fact that middle school drug useoften leads to addiction and other disorders later in life means early intervention is essential. Statistics from recent surveys of teenage drug use underscore the need to educate children about its dangers.


Like other substances, middle schoolers are consuming less alcohol today than they did 10 years ago. However, the latest statistics show that binge drinking rates among middle school students have remained steady in the past few years, so the downward trend seems to have stopped. The percentage of 8th-grade students who say they drank alcohol in the past month is still at 8.2% or nearly 1 in 12 students. This is particularly concerning because alcohol abuse by children can seriously disrupt brain development and cognitive functions.

In a recent study conducted by The Recovery Village, 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not) were surveyed.

Research shows that people who drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become addicted to alcohol later in life. Among those surveyed:

  • 10.1% had their first alcoholic drink at 11 years old or younger
  • 37.5% had their first alcoholic drink between 12–17 years old
  • 39.7% had their first alcoholic drink between 18–25 years old
  • 12.6% had their first alcoholic drink at 26 years old or older


Marijuana is one of the few substances that hasn’t declined in use by teens recently. In fact, marijuana has now surpassed traditional cigarettes in middle school smoking rates. According to the CDC, 6.8% of students say they tried marijuana before they turned 13 years old. With the rise of vaping, 2.6% of 8th graders now vape marijuana as well. Like alcohol, underage marijuana use can disrupt brain development in children and has a serious negative impact on their academic performance. With the legalization of marijuana in several states, and possibly more in the future, marijuana use among youth is likely to increase.


Inhalants are household fixtures like gasoline, keyboard cleaner, paint thinner, markers and glue that give off noxious fumes that can get people high. These drugs are extremely dangerous, but readily available to younger children. This ease of access is perhaps why 5% of 8th graders say that they have used inhalants in their lifetimes. Fewer teens believe that occasional inhalant use is harmful, a belief that puts them at great risk for suffering from unintended consequences of inhalant abuse.

One of the dangers of inhalant use is sudden sniffing death syndrome. One of the most commonly misused solvents, butane, becomes very cold when sprayed directly into the throat. This can cause muscles in the throat to spasm for a long time and prevent breathing, and eventually can cause suffocation. Other inhalants can cause cardiac arrest or fatal cardiac arrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat which can be deadly).

Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs

Children who abuse over-the-counter drugs like cough syrups and pills take the substances in high doses to get high. With these types of medications present in the medicine cabinets of most households, they are easily accessible to children and teenagers. Though it could seem innocuous, cough syrup is one of the medicines most commonly abused by kids. Some cough syrups and cold medicines, like certain types of Nyquil, contain alcohol. Teenagers sometimes drink large quantities of these medications to get drunk.

Kids and teenagers also sometimes misuse prescription medications, especially painkillers. Fortunately, the recent opioid epidemic hasn’t affected children in the same way that it has impacted adults across the country. Yet prescription drug abuse by teens is still dangerously common. Among students in junior high 7.8% report having used prescription medications for non-prescription purposes.

Effects of Middle School Drug Abuse

Drug abuse affects every aspect of a middle school student’s life. Depending on the substance, the health effectsrange from developmental delays to fatal illnesses and injuries. Mentally, it can stunt a young teen’s cognitive function and can cause mental health disorders. Alcohol or drug use during school years can also lower their academic performance, and those who use tend to have much lower grades than those who don’t. Ironically, though peer pressure may turn a kid towards drugs in the first place, drug use can even make it difficult for them to make good friends.

There are legal consequences as well, as drug and alcohol use is a major contributing factor to child crime rates. Kids and teens often steal money in order to buy drugs or steal alcohol and other substances to get high on. As many as 4 out of every 5 juveniles who are incarcerated were under the influence of drugs or alcohol while committing the crimes they were arrested for. Most of these children do not receive substance abuse treatment while in juvenile detention.

Does Your Middle Schooler Need Rehab?

If you notice symptoms of addiction in your middle schooler, you should take action right away. The more they use, the greater the damage will be to their health and their mental development. Your family doctor or child’s pediatrician is a good place to start, and they will be able to point you to child drug addiction resources in your area.

The stigma surrounding substance abuse makes it a difficult topic to discuss. In truth, however, addiction is a disease that needs to be treated just like any other condition. If your child has a substance addiction, exploring treatment options can help save a life. The longer the addiction is allowed to fester, the harder it is to treat. Fortunately, there are youth substance abuse treatment programs available that are specialized to work with children and young teens with addictions.

Representatives at The Recovery Village are available to talk to you free of cost, and there are no obligations. We want to help you sort through the confusion of dealing with addiction in your family, and see your child come out sober on the other end. Whether you just want to talk, or need questions answered, or want assistance in finding a rehab facility, we can help you. Call today to begin your child’s healing.

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Editor – Gretchen Koebbe
Gretchen Koebbe is a writing and reading specialist based out of Detroit. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Anna Pickering, PhD
Dr. Anna Pickering has a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology. Anna works as a medical writer. She grew up in Oregon, where she developed a love for science, nature, and writing. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.