One in ten teenagers have tried hard drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, a study into the behaviours of Generation Z has found.
Nearly a third (31%) had tried cannabis and 10% had tried harder drugs by the age of 17, according to research from University College London’s (UCL) Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
The study suggests that rates of drug use remained similar among 17-year-olds regardless of their parents’ educational backgrounds.
But teenagers whose parents had at least a degree were more likely to binge drink than those whose parents had lower level qualifications, it found.
The researchers analysed data from nearly 10,000 individuals across the UK in the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative study of teenagers born around 2000.
When participants were 17 years old in 2018-19, they were asked questions about drug taking, binge drinking and smoking, as well as assault, shoplifting and vandalism.
Overall, more than half (53%) of young people had engaged in binge drinking – drinking five or more drinks at a time – and 9% had done this on 10 or more occasions in the past year.
Teenagers whose parents were highly educated, holding at least a degree, were more likely to engage in binge drinking than those whose parents had lower level qualifications (59% vs 50%).
They were also more likely to report having tried alcohol (89% vs 82%).
The study also discovered differences in rates of substance use according to sex and ethnicity.
Males were more likely than females to use cannabis (34% vs 28%), take harder drugs (12% vs 8%) and binge drink (56% vs 51%).
White teenagers were much more likely to have experimented with substances than their ethnic minority peers. They were twice as likely to report taking harder drugs (11% vs 5%) and almost three times more likely to report binge drinking than ethnic minority teenagers (59% vs 21%).
Study co-author Professor Emla Fitzsimons said: “To some extent, experimental and risk-taking behaviours are an expected part of growing up and, for many, will subside in early adulthood.
“Nevertheless, behaviours in adolescence can be a cause for concern as they can have adverse long-term consequences for individuals’ health and wellbeing, and their social and economic outcomes.”
She added: “It remains to be seen how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected engagement in these behaviours.”
For some of these behaviours, data was also collected previously at age 14 which enables researchers to track behaviours during the adolescent period.
Reports of antisocial behaviours mostly remained stable or declined as Generation Z approached adulthood compared with rates at age 14.
Prevalence of assault – pushing, shoving, hitting, slapping or punching someone – fell from 32% at age 14 to 25% at age 17, and levels of vandalism, graffitiing and weapon use were similar at both ages.
However, reports of shoplifting increased from 4% in early adolescence to 7% a few years later.
Young people whose parents were educated to degree level or higher reported higher rates of shoplifting than their peers whose parents had lower level qualifications (9% vs 5%).
Co-author Dr Aase Villadsen added: “This surprising finding could show that the peak in antisocial behaviours in this generation has been reached earlier than usual and rates have already started to come down by age 17.
“Or it may be because young people nowadays are engaging in a much lower level of offending than in the past; official figures have shown plummeting rates of youth offending in the last decade.”