How We Try to Head Off Teen Drug Abuse

First, by realizing that drugs, devices & social-emotional learning are all connected


Teen holding marijuana joint considering teen drug abuse | HealthFit Family Medicine | Castle Rock | CO

It’s overwhelming. There has always been teen drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Then came opioids, fentanyl and the designer drugs. Now with states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, and a resurgence of tobacco use through liquids/vaping, it is difficult at best to stay on top of the latest ways to manage, let alone prevent, the use of drugs and alcohol throughout our (mostly) middle and high schools.

What we know about teen tobacco and marijuana use

  • Ninety percent of adult daily nicotine users started using before the age of 18, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • In 2016, more than 2 million United States middle and high school students used e-cigarettes over a 30-day period (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
  • The habituation of nicotine in teens is higher than any other drug – approaching 70 percent.
  • Almost 9 percent of students in 2016 self-reported using marijuana or a THC substance through an e-cigarette device.
  • A similar study in 2018 validated the number, finding over 8 percent of children in grades 6-12 reported using marijuana in an e-cigarette device.
  • Four times the potential increase in potency of nicotine and THC can be purchased in liquid form compared with a normal cigarette or the marijuana joint.

While there are other drugs like fentanyl that have extreme potency, we know that most kids don’t start experimenting with heroin or fentanyl, they start with more accessible drugs like alcohol, nicotine and marijuana. This article is focused on getting to the root of teen drug abuse and understanding the early actions we can take to prevent addictive behaviors in the first place.

Digging into teen drug abuse

E-cigarettes and vaping

E-cigarettes and vaping are still relatively new so we don’t know all of the possible effects yet. We do know though that nicotine is addictive and harmful no matter how it’s delivered. Between targeted marketing and the positive perception of vaporized nicotine with kids, there are plenty of misconceptions about the safety of vaping.

A recent national survey showed that more than 6 of 10 American teens believe that e-cigarettes cause little or no harm as long as they are used sometimes but not every day. Nearly 20 percent of young adults believe e-cigarettes cause no harm, more than half believe that they are moderately harmful, and 26.8 percent believe they are very harmful. The graph below shows the explosive growth of e-cigarette use in our schools.

Growth in e-cigarette use

Chart showing growth in teen drug abuse | HealthFit Family Medicine | Castle Rock | CO
Source: National Youth Tobacco Survey 2011-2015

Marijuana/THC

As it pertains to the marijuana industry, today’s marijuana is no longer a plant. States have unwittingly led efforts to legalize what they thought was a plant that grew naturally. Today’s marijuana plants are genetically modified organisms (GMO) with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive piece of the plant) that is 5 times stronger than the naturally growing plant.

The extracted THC content, which can be as high as 98 percent THC, is effectively pure THC. Marijuana is no longer the leafy plant most of us think of. In reality, the marijuana varieties sold in dispensaries are chemical concentrates that have a range of textures and forms. These chemicals are distillates of marijuana and are designed for maximum THC potency.

Teen drug abuse, social media & emotional intelligence

Teens don’t always think before they act or fully consider the consequences of their decisions. They can occasionally behave in an irrational, impulsive or even dangerous way. Teens behave, solve problems and make decisions differently than adults – and there is a biological explanation. The frontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps us predict outcomes and consequences, does not fully develop until the mid-20s.

Consider too that research by Dr. John Monterosso, a professor at the University of Southern California, has shown that the immediacy of reward is central to the problem of addiction. It is an issue of temporal discounting, which means that people put less value on more distant rewards. The distant, uncertain reward, appears less valuable than the immediate, certain one – even though the distant, uncertain reward might be greater.

Substance use in children inhibits the development of the frontal cortex of the brain, which prevents the maturity of key societal behaviors that kids need to be successful generally in life. Additionally, we are finding that adolescent use of social media and devices can also inhibit the development of these key societal behaviors that we often refer to as emotional intelligence. So early on, children are being depleted of the emotional advantages they need to prevent addictive behaviors in the first place.

Giving kids the foundation to develop self-awareness, self-regulation and internal motivation can unlock the keys to helping them prevent the urges of addiction in the first place.

Guiding our children, this era’s digital natives

Our ability to manage our emotions in a healthy way profoundly impacts our happiness on a daily basis. Drugs, devices and social-emotional learning are all connected, and the prevention methods for children need to evolve as societal trends change.

So, what about emotional intelligence?

What difference does it make if kids have emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is linked to emotional competence. It is also tied to social and emotional learning and the development of healthy, life-promoting behaviors. Emotional intelligence has also been proven to reduce some of the risk factors associated with alcohol and other drug abuse in adolescents and adults (Ken Russel Coelho, 2012).

Our children are a new era of digital natives. They think differently, act differently and have different expectations. What is not different though, is the need to practice and continue to develop their emotional intelligence skills. That is where we as teachers and parents can act.

What’s my role?

As mentors, healthcare providers, parents and responsible adults, we can no longer just tell kids, “Don’t do drugs.” We have to recognize why more kids are using drugs and understand how emotional intelligence can have lasting impact in the prevention of addiction and long-term well-being of our kids.

We have to understand the root of why children start using substances due to the emotional attachment of wanting to fit-in, feel-good or forget their feelings. This is all in addition to teaching them the effects of drugs, teen drug abuse, and the facts that drugs will damage or alter a child’s brain, body and future.

But make no mistake, just teaching the facts about teen drug abuse will get you more of the same. We have to evolve our thinking and the tools we use to help children prevent and manage the mental urges of substance use by introducing aspects of emotional intelligence and letting them practice those skills to maturity.

Our children need to know they have value and meaning that is defined by family and school, not social media. They need to develop dreams and aspirations through discovery, thinking and boredom – not idealistic behaviors they see online. They need to practice these skills in a safe setting so they can use them for a lifetime.

Children are presented with false information everywhere online regarding marijuana, vaping devices and other substances from sources that do not have kids’ safety in mind. As children mature, we need to discuss the truths about the actual impact that drugs will have on a developing child’s brain, which are different than the effects on adults’ brains. We need to take time to discuss the drug industry and how to be aware of the strategies being used by these companies to sell to new users.

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