There’s much about being a teenager that makes drug use and addiction more likely. According to the CDC, more than 60 percent of teens have tried alcohol, more than 35 percent have used marijuana, and more than 14 percent have misused prescription drugs. While some experimentation among teens is inevitable, it is not inconsequential. Most teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol will not develop a substance use issue, but early use is a significant risk factor for developing an addiction. Here’s why teens may be more prone to developing addiction.
Teens learn quickly.
One advantage teens have over adults is that they learn more quickly. The human brain learns most quickly during early childhood. Apparently simple tasks like identifying colors, shapes, and faces are actually massively complex. As you get older, your brain gradually disguards unused synapses, making cognition more efficient. This process is still happening in the teen brain, which is why teens are able to pick up new skills so quickly. The music you love becomes deeply imprinted during this age. You can still learn new languages much faster than adults, but not quite as fast as children. You learn to use new technology easily. The downside is that you can also learn destructive behaviors. You can internalize criticism from parents, teachers, and peers. You can form maladaptive thinking habits. You can also become addicted more quickly. In a way, addiction is a kind of learning disorder, but whereas a typical learning disorder makes useful learning difficult, addiction makes harmful learning easy. Addictive drugs fire up the dopamine system. While dopamine is associated with pleasure, its main purpose is to reinforce reward-seeking behavior. When you have a positive experience, dopamine is what spurs you to try to repeat it. This process is even more powerful when it happens in the malleable teen brain. Teens learn much more quickly that drugs or alcohol produce pleasurable experiences that they want to repeat. Addiction forms in fewer uses than it would take for an adult.
Teen brains are not fully developed.
On top of this greater cognitive plasticity, teen brains aren’t yet capable of mature judgment. This may seem obvious, but there is a physiological reason why teens often show poor judgment. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher reasoning and executive function. It’s responsible for things like working memory, self-control, making plans, and following through. It’s also the last part of the brain to fully develop. The prefrontal cortex has to communicate with other parts of the brain, particularly those related to emotion, through the axons of long brain cells. In order to work efficiently, these axons must be insulated with a fatty substance called myelin. However, the process of insulating these axons isn’t complete until about age 25. That’s one reason car insurance gets cheaper after age 25–experience and judgment combine to produce a competent driver. Before then, judgment is often poor and even when teens know rationally that they shouldn’t do something, they may lack the willpower to resist doing it. They may not have the skill to regulate their emotions or they might not think ahead to the consequences. This isn’t always a bad thing. It can lead them to try things more prudent adults wouldn’t consider, leading to new experiences and mistakes they can learn from. However, if the mistake includes using addictive drugs, it’s not always so easy to undo the damage.
Teens are under a lot of pressure.
The teens years are turbulent. Teens often feel a lot of pressure from friends, parents, and teachers, and often those pressures conflict. A surprisingly high number of teens develop anxiety disorders and depression. More than 30 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder. It’s much more common among girls than boys. About 38 percent of adolescent girls will have an anxiety disorder, compared to about 26 percent of adolescent boys. About eight percent of teens experience anxiety with severe impairment. Anxiety is a major risk factor for substance use and addiction. People often try to relieve their anxiety with alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, or opioids, which can easily lead to dependence and addiction. Teens are especially prone to social anxiety, which they may try to relieve with alcohol or marijuana. Teens also may be more likely to become depressed. An estimated 20 percent of people will experience a depressive episode at some point in their teen years and the rate appears to be rising. This is compared to about 16 percent in the general population. As with anxiety, depression can lead to substance use. Boys are less likely to become depressed in general, but they are more likely to respond to depression by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or acting out with risky behavior.
The good news.
The good news is that the plasticity that allows teens to quickly learn addictive behavior also helps them unlearn it. Just as early use makes you more prone to addiction, early treatment makes it easier to recover. Teens have spent less time reinforcing the addictive behavior. Teens often often less severe withdrawal symptoms too. With proper treatment, most teens can make a full recovery. What’s more, since substance use is often a sign of another issue, such as depression or anxiety, getting treatment is an opportunity to address the underlying cause, which may otherwise have gone untreated.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Our Copper Hills facility specializes in the treatment of adolescents with addiction or mental health issues. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.