Pandemic trends in teenage substance use, and how to help students make healthier decisions The pandemic is visibly affecting teenagers, and educators are likely wondering how COVID-19 is impacting student mental health: Have teenagers become likelier to engage in risky behavior like marijuana or alcohol use? Has social distancing left a mark on teenagers' mental health? What can educators do to encourage safe decisions? Prevention sounds intimidating, but educators don't have to be experts about substance use to make an incredible difference in students' lives. Teachers can model smart decision-making and share important information related to substance use. Educators can expose their students to facts and protect them against peer pressure. And even one caring adult can help keep a lot of kids healthy. In this article, we'll discuss student mental health and substance use trends related to COVID-19, and we'll share a few tips for educators who want to earn their students' trust and help them make healthier decisions. The surprising relationship between binge drinking and COVID-19 Binge drinking, or higher-risk drinking, is largely a social phenomenon motivated by real or perceived peer pressure. Because of the social distancing measures that have been put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, binge drinking among teenagers has actually followed the larger trend, continuing a decade-long decline in higher-risk drinking. However, there is also significant evidence that teenagers who are still binge drinking are consuming more alcohol and more often. And, although social distancing has become an unexpected protective factor against binge drinking, teenagers report using alcohol at home more frequently during the pandemic. Vaping has tapered off and become disposable during COVID-19 After a meteoric rise, electronic cigarette and vape use actually leveled off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is that? For one, teenagers care about their health, and vaping-related deaths and widespread news coverage came just prior to and during COVID-19—a pandemic that preys particularly hard on lung function. Students quickly understood the increased ramifications of vaping. It's also worth mentioning the legal changes that have attempted to stymy teenage vaping. During the pandemic, the United States raised the legal age to purchase vape products to 21 and restricted the sale of flavored, cartridge-based products like Juul. Along with the bans, though, the youth vape market shifted, creating a rise in the use of disposable vapes that are packed with flavor, like Puff Bars, that come with the same health risks. And there is also evidence that the bans may have increased the use of combustible tobacco, like cigarettes, among nicotine users ages 18-24. Marijuana shifted shape during the pandemic Among teens who use marijuana, fewer are choosing to smoke it. Instead it's becoming more popular for teens to vape marijuana or to ingest edible forms of the drug. While the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, THC, has been linked to decreases in IQ and increases in teen psychosis and addiction, vaped forms of marijuana are still falsely marketed as a healthy or safe way to use the drug. How to facilitate better mental health and decision-making Research shows that most students are making healthy decisions about drug and alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic. But trusted adults and educators can continue to encourage those positive decisions while helping other students to make healthier choices about alcohol, drug use and other risky behaviors. Here are some simple prevention strategies that educators can use to facilitate better mental health and decision-making: Discuss healthy trends with teens. This is an evidence-based, social norms approach to teenage substance use. Adults and educators share facts with students about their own positive choices, and it's proven to effectively promote teenagers' ongoing well-being. Practice informal interventions on unhealthy student perceptions. Sometimes just a few words of concern without judgement can make a huge difference. When an adult hears students gushing about the new vaping tricks they saw on TikTok, sharing how "that doesn't seem healthy" sends the message that an adult is engaged and cares about their students' well-being. Incorporating prevention into the curriculum. Students find the topic of alcohol and other drug use interesting. Adults and educators can easily capitalize on this interest to build engagement and relevancy to classwork. Using health-based language to discuss substance use among teens. Adults can destigmatize a conversation about alcohol or other drug use by removing judmental language like "good" or "bad." Adults should talk instead in terms like "more or less healthy" and "riskier or less risky." Presenting healthy alternatives. Many young people have built resiliency to stress and boredom this year. Adults should explore and celebrate their own sober highs, letting students know what they do to have fun and relax in substance-free ways. Encouraging students to share about their own health. An educator should consider the difference they might make by simply asking their students, "How are you taking care of yourself today?" Students around the world have experienced significant and potentially long-lasting mental health effects during the pandemic. Now more than ever, trusted adults can play a role in prevention, by creating safe spaces for teens and helping them to make healthier choices about alcohol and other drug use.