Declines in prevalence of adolescent substance use disorders and delinquent behaviors in the USA: a unitary trend?

Psychol Med. 2018 Jul;48(9):1494-1503. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717002999. Epub 2017 Oct 25.


Background: Downward trends in a number of adolescent risk behaviors including violence, crime, and drug use have been observed in the USA in recent years. It is unknown whether these are separate trends or whether they might relate to a general reduction in propensity to engage in such behaviors. Our objectives were to quantify trends in substance use disorders (SUDs) and delinquent behaviors over the 2003-2014 period and to determine whether they might reflect a single trend in an Externalizing-like trait.

Methods: We analyzed data from 12 to 17 year old participants from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a representative survey of the household dwelling population of the USA, across the 2003-2014 period (N = 210 599). Outcomes included past-year prevalence of six categories of substance use disorder and six categories of delinquent behavior.

Results: Trend analysis suggested a net decline of 49% in mean number of SUDs and a 34% decline in delinquent behaviors over the 12-year period. Item Response Theory models were consistent with the interpretation that declines in each set of outcomes could be attributed to changes in mean levels of a latent, Externalizing-like trait.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that declines in SUDs and some delinquent behaviors reflect a single trend related to an Externalizing-like trait. Identifying the factors contributing to this trend may facilitate continued improvement across a spectrum of adolescent risk behaviors.

Keywords: Epidemiology; juvenile delinquency; structural models; substance use disorder; trends.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Age Distribution
  • Child
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Juvenile Delinquency / statistics & numerical data*
  • Juvenile Delinquency / trends
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sex Distribution
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • United States / epidemiology