UT researcher finds pregnant teens significantly more likely to use illegal substances than non-pregnant peers

Caleb Wong

Pregnant teenagers are twice as likely to use illegal substances as non-pregnant teenagers, according to research conducted by Christopher Salas-Wright, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. 

Salas-Wright said younger teenagers are putting themselves and their babies at risk because they do not receive adequate information from parents and schools about the risks of substance use during pregnancy.

“We found that pregnant teens were significantly more likely to report using a whole array of drugs and alcohol over the past 12 months,” Salas-Wright said. “We also found that they were more likely to meet the criteria for substance use disorder.” 

Pharmacy associate professor Michela Marinelli, who works at UT’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, said substance abuse during teenage pregnancy can harm prenatal development.

“It’s very frightening if pregnant teens are taking drugs,” Marinelli said. “Their children will not be normal, and, even though the most drugs they take are during the first trimester, some drugs they are taking are affecting the development of that early stage, like alcohol. The neural tube is still forming, and it will have lots of implications for the offspring later on.” 

Older teenagers, Salas-Wright said, are less likely to use substances such as alcohol and marijuana during pregnancies than younger teenagers are.

“We found that all the adolescents who were pregnant between the ages of 15 and 17 were less likely to use substances during pregnancy, but the younger adolescents — those between the ages of 12 and 14 — were more likely than their non-pregnant peers to report using substances,” Salas-Wright said.

Parental involvement and school engagement seemed to correlate with fewer instances of substance use during teenage pregnancy, according to Salas-Wright.

“We found that kids who report very consistent parental involvement and school engagement were substantially less likely to use substances during pregnancy,” Salas-Wright said. “So that seems to indicate when you’re thinking about prevention, it might make sense to involve parents and teachers in prevention efforts.”  

Pharmacy professor Robert Messing said interventions could help reduce harmful affects from teenage pregnancy, but more research and testing need to be done before establishing the cause of substance use during teenage pregnancies. 

“Intervention programs might help,” Messing said. “Let’s assume it’s true that lack of parenting is causal, is a contributing factor … you could target those youth and prevent pregnancy just by targeting the population at risk for the drug use because you want to get the pregnancy issue nipped in the bud earlier.”