Adolescent Addiction (and Its Causes)

While harmful to anyone, addictive behaviors are exponentially so for developing brains. The physiological effects of such behaviors, coupled with the vulnerability to peer pressure, places adolescents at increased risk.

We can experience addiction at any age, for any reason. The need to feel stimulation and pleasure is a normal one, but it becomes dangerous when it veers into compulsive activities that end up harming us physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Such behaviors can include an excessive dependence on substances—like food, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. But other addictions are becoming more common—online shopping, video games, social media, and texting—especially in our increasingly digital age. In addition, sex, relationships, and pornography can serve to produce the dopamine hit that we repeatedly seek out when we’re under the lure of an addiction.

Addictive behaviors can produce an intensely euphoric state that creates surges in dopamine, also known as the pleasure hormone. We start to associate pleasure with addictive behavior. However, as we get repeated exposure to the behaviors that once produced dopamine, the brain adjusts to it over time—and we need even more of our pleasure-inducing stimuli to simply feel…just OK. This is a painful cycle that can cause us to spiral into anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other challenges to our mental and physical health.

The effects of addiction on young people are especially devastating, given the fact that their brains are still developing. In fact, the human brain only reaches full maturity at the age of 25 or so. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully mature. What does this mean? Basically, teens are already more susceptible to making impulsive decisions, given that their capacity for good judgment, planning, self-regulation, foresight, and attention (all executive functions of the prefrontal cortex) is weaker than it is among adults. This is why parents are often surprised when they discover that their teenager, who gets straight A’s, is also prone to destructive behavior and compulsive tendencies.

The social phase of adolescent brain development also means that young people are being more directly influenced by their peers and social situations. Social approval is key at this age, and teens might engage in risky behaviors and become involved with peers who use substances, to get that approval. In addition, the proliferation of social media and other digital platforms providing ways to connect have raised questions around the long-term cognitive effects on teenagers and their developing brains.

Overall, the desire to be accepted by their peer group, to get good grades, and to plan for the future—which can feel especially bleak, in light of the many challenges we face, globally and nationally—can generate intense pressure. And often, adults forget that all this compounded stress and uncertainty, paired with teens’ inability to navigate it, can lead to bad decisions—which often give young people the kind of adrenaline rush that can keep them coming back for more. Addiction among adolescents also has other potential causes, including genetics (children of addicts are likely to draw pleasure from addictive activities or substances), childhood trauma (which can lead to using an addictive behavior as a coping mechanism to mitigate stress and suffering), and isolation or social ostracism (victims of childhood bullying are likely to develop addictions to cope with the pain)

Young people who try drugs or alcohol have a greater risk of developing an addiction and curtailing their cognitive development. The top addictive substance among teens is alcohol, as 67% of high-school students have reported trying it; marijuana comes in second, at 50%; and tobacco comes in third, at 40%. We’re also seeing a rapid increase in prescription medication abuse—20% of teens reported recreationally using medications prescribed to someone else. There are numerous tell-tale signs of addiction, physical and otherwise. You might notice the following:

  • Slurred words
  • Lack of concentration
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Manic behavior, such an alarming increase in their energy
  • Withdrawal symptoms (shaking, hallucinations, etc.)
  • Paranoia
  • Academic challenges (especially with sudden changes in grades or sudden loss of interest
  • in school and extracurricular activities)
  • Secrecy and avoidance
  • A change in their friend group
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Lack of sleep
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Physically and emotionally violent behavior

What adults need to understand is that the desire for novelty and pleasure is a normal part of being human. So is navigating change and the transition from childhood to adulthood in ways that expand our sense of freedom and possibility. Sometimes that journey can be painful and messy, and experimentation is a part of learning who we are and who we want to be. However, we all need to exercise discernment as we separate healthy experimentation from addictive behaviors, which can create harmful ripple effects in a teen’s life for years to come.

Fortunately, the brain of a teenager is malleable enough so that they can institute positive habits and learn to make healthier choices—meaning it’s possible for them to turn their life around in the wake of addiction. It’s crucial for them to feel a solid bond with their parents or guardians, even if they don’t necessarily admit to it.

If you’re concerned that a young person you know and care about is struggling with addiction, focus on communicating with them respectfully and expressing interest in their lives, as well as their thoughts and feelings. Let them know, through your loving attention, that they aren’t alone. Instead of being judgmental, do your best to listen (without interrupting!) and express your appreciation for their positive qualities, as well as their transparency.

Despite your best efforts, a teen who’s experiencing a severe substance-use problem may require professional help from someone who is an expert at addressing underlying mental-health concerns, or treating withdrawal. If you are concerned that a teenager in your life is struggling with addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information about support in your area.

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