Millennials are those who had just come of age, were coming of age, or were about to come of age as we stepped into the 21st century. If we go by the dates published by Time Magazine, this roughly equates to anyone born between 1980 and 2000.1 Alternately, some call this group Generation Y. Whichever terminology you prefer, the millennial generation has gotten a lot of attention lately, particularly when it comes to things like business, economics and marketing.
Of course, this isn’t surprising when you realize that millennials have surpassed the ‘Baby Boomers’ to become the largest of all current generations with approximately 40 percent of all adults over the age of 21 belonging to this group.2
Another thing for which millennials are increasingly known is substance abuse. Of course, we’re well-acquainted with the fact that youths are one of the demographic groups with an especially high risk of developing alcoholism or drug addictions, so it’s not all that surprising when statistics show higher-than-average rates of substance abuse among millennials.
However, an important characteristic that distinguishes millennials from youths overall is the distinct millennial subculture and their largely-shared scope of concerns. This begs a really important question: Is there something about millennial subculture that makes this generation more prone to substance abuse? How slippery is the slope between hashtags and rehabs?
Let’s Look at the Numbers
We’ve learned so much about addiction, particularly in the past couple decades while rates of addiction have continued to climb across virtually all demographic groups. In theory, one might expect millennials to be less likely to abuse alcohol or use drugs since they’re taught about and so often exposed to the harsh realities of the disease. However, that has not been the case.
“It is estimated that 49% of college students consume alcohol or abuse illegal drugs or prescription medication.”
According to statistics, the demographic group with the most binge-drinkers is the 18-to-34 age group, and this group consists almost entirely of millennials. Nearly 60 percent of college students — a group consisting largely of millennials who are often under the legal drinking age — abuse alcohol on at least a monthly basis.3
Moreover, about one in five college students meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcoholism. Estimates for prescription drug misuse have been similar with 20 percent of college-aged individuals admitting to having abused pharmaceuticals. In addition to marijuana, prescription drugs and alcohol are the most problematic substances for millennials, but what is driving millennials to substance abuse as such disheartening levels?
The Millennial Conundrum
It may be tempting to blame social media or constant use of mobile devices, but the cause of millennial substance abuse isn’t so simple. In fact, there’s not even a singular source, but, rather, the cumulative effect of different factors. For starters, it’s important to remember that the brain is still developing throughout much of the millennial age range, which is why adolescents are prone to being impulsive and reckless.4
From what we’ve discovered through the field of neurology, the reward circuit is much more sensitive in young people’s brains than in the fully developed brain, resulting in an exaggerated reward response and behavior that seems hedonistic and pleasure-driven. For this very reason, young people have been found to become addicted to things much more easily than adults.5
Another cause of millennial substance abuse is stress. Although all demographic groups have shown a tendency to use alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms, millennials are actually more affected by stress and are more frequently stressed out than other demographic groups. Being so stressed interferes with their decision-making and causes them to act seemingly without consideration of the consequences.6
It’s also been suggested that certain facets of the millennial subculture may cultivate traits of an addictive personality. For instance, take away a millennial’s smartphone and he or she may experience a sort of pseudo-withdrawal.7 Much like alcohol or drugs, the use of technology is less and less pleasurable as it becomes part of daily life, but its absence is quite affecting. It’s been suggested that many millennials are addicted to social media, too.
Millennials have proven to be adept multi-taskers due to their constant switching from one device to another, from one website or social network to another, from one television channel to another. Whenever they become bored with one thing, they can quickly switch to something else that’s more interesting. This behavior pattern creates a feedback loop wherein a young person is rewarded — the brain’s reward circuit experiences a surge of dopamine — for losing focus and not paying attention.8
In other words, having a short attention span is reinforced on a neurological level and involves processes that mirror substance abuse.
Is There a Solution?
So instead of millennials’ risk of developing substance abuse problems being either cultural or biological, it’s a combination of both, which makes the situation even more disconcerting. The question quickly becomes whether or not there’s anything that can be done about this.
An obvious response would be to increase our addiction prevention efforts, especially where millennials are concerned. In particular, we could make addiction programs more available to adolescents, teens and young adults. Since stress is one of the biggest factors for millennial substance abuse, teaching young people how to better manage stress would be invaluable, especially at younger ages when they’re most impressionable and can put effective coping strategies to use as they mature.
It would also be a good idea to engage with millennials rather than leaving them to their own devices. They’re unlikely to give up the technologies they’ve been using for their entire lives, but there’s certainly room to expand face-to-face interactivity.
By Dane O’Leary, Contributing Writer