Get the facts about young people and drugs

Young People and Drugs


Most young people don’t use drugs: 76% of young people aged 11-15 say they have never taken drugs.

The likelihood of pupils having ever taken drugs increases with age, from 11% of 11 year olds to 37% of 15 year olds.

An estimated 580,000 secondary school aged pupils in England (18%) took at least one drug last year. Excluding nitrous oxide and new psychoactive substances, this figure drops to 15%.

Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug, with 8% of secondary school pupils saying they took the drug in the last year, and 14% of 16 to 19 year olds. Use of Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine is very uncommon.

The most recent drug use survey includes new data on nitrous oxide and new psychoactive substances (NPS): in the last year, only 4% of pupils said they had used nitrous oxide, and 2% used NPS.

You can make a big difference to the decisions that young people make about drugs, particularly if you:

  • Listen to your children
  • Encourage independence
  • Place limits, consequences and expectations on your children’s behaviour and administer fair and consistent discipline
  • Are nurturing and express warmth to, and about, your children
  • Encourage your children to express their opinions and discuss their options in their lives

If you are worried your child may be drinking or taking drugs:

  • Pick your time to talk – not when they’re rushing off to school or, if they are using, when they’re high.
  • Know their friends – peer pressure is one of the most influential factors affecting young people’s alcohol consumption. Children whose friends drink alcohol are five times more likely to drink than those whose friends do not.
  • Be a good role model – though it may not always seem like it, children look to their parents and carers for guidance and you shouldn’t underestimate your influence. 11 year olds whose mothers drink heavily are 80% more likely to develop problematic drinking habits than those whose mothers don’t drink heavily.
  • Encourage them to talk honestly – not just to tell you what you what they think you want to hear.
  • Don’t panic – if your child has tried drugs, be calm when discussing it with them. Show love and concern rather than anger.

NPS (Legal Highs)

New psychoactive substances or NPS (formerly known as “legal highs”) are a group of drugs designed to bypass the former legislative controls of illegal drugs.

In May 2016 the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, banning all non-exempt psychoactive substances. For helpful myth-busting information on what “legal highs” are, and what the new law means for your child, click here.


Advice on Alcohol

More and more young people are choosing not to drink alcohol or are waiting until they are older. The latest figures show only 10% of 11-15 year olds drank in the last week. However, those who do drink are drinking a lot more than 10 years ago. For some of them, “drinking alcohol” may equal “getting drunk.”

Where do they get alcohol from? In 2016, 28% of pupils aged 11-15 in England said that they had obtained alcohol in the last four weeks. The most common ways of obtaining alcohol were: to be given it by parents or guardians (70%), given it by friends (54%), to take it from home with permission (41%), or to ask someone else to buy it (35%).

If and when those 11-15 year olds drank alcohol, they were most likely to do so in their own home (62%), at parties with friends (43%), someone else’s home (41%), or somewhere outside (13%).

For more detailed information on young people’s drinking and drug use, see the most recent survey on Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England.

Good reasons not to drink

When talking to your child, stay away from scare tactics. Most young teens are aware that many people drink without problems, so it is important to discuss the consequences of alcohol without overstating the case.

Some good reasons why teens should not drink:

  • You want your child to avoid alcohol: Clearly state your own expectations about your child’s drinking. Your values and attitudes count with your child, even though he or she may not always show it.
  • To maintain self-respect: Teens say the best way to persuade them to avoid alcohol is to appeal to their self-respect. Let them know that they are too smart and have too much going for them to need the crutch of alcohol. Teens also are likely to pay attention to examples of how alcohol might lead to embarrassing situations or events – things that might damage their self-respect or alter important relationships.
  • Better exam results: Drinking once or twice a week has been associated with scores around 20 points lower at GCSE (equivalent to 3 grades, or the difference between an A and a D in one subject); and drinking on most days may mean 80 points lower scores (equivalent to 13 grades) (National Centre for Social Research 2010).

For each year during adolescence a young person doesn't drink alcohol, they are 10% less likely to abuse alcohol as an adult.

  • Drinking can be dangerous: One of the leading causes of teen deaths is motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol. Drinking also makes a young person more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. And while your teen may believe he or she wouldn’t engage in hazardous activities after drinking, point out that because alcohol impairs judgment, a drinker is very likely to think such activities won’t be dangerous.
  • Alcohol affects young people differently to adults: Drinking while the brain is still maturing may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects and may even increase the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence later in life.
  • You have a family history of alcoholism: If one or more members of your family has suffered from alcoholism, your child may be more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem. Recent research at UCL indicated that parental drinking – particularly mothers – made adolescent drinking far more likely.