Why is teenage substance abuse so dangerous?

For many teenagers “having fun” at a party is synonymous with binge drinking and smoking weed.  Parents are often reluctant to interfere with this so called “adolescent” behaviour without realising how damaging and life altering this can be. They often don’t realise that the adolescent brain is much more vulnerable than the adult one.

Is there a difference in an adolescent brain and an adult brain?

Yes there is! The teenage brain is still a work in progress, and it continues to develop until early adulthood (when you are somewhere around 25 years old). The part of the brain that takes longest to develop is the part that sits just behind the forehead. It’s known as the prefrontal cortex, and it’s responsible for self control, and it manages other cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, and mental flexibility.

At this point, keep in mind that adolescents are at the stage of their lives where they are
seeking and exploring independence. The areas of the brain that are responsible for governing emotions and rewards are more developed than the part that is responsible for inhibitions. This disposes them to risky behaviour (that displays their independence), and they don’t always consider the consequences of their actions as much as adults would like them to – or as much as they should.

Teenage substance abuse can interfere with normal brain maturation

If teenagers start using alcohol, drugs or cigarettes at this age, they are far more likely to become addicted than if they started later on in life – after their brains are fully developed. This addiction has damaging effects on the maturing brain.

Binge drinking can actually kill brain cells in the adolescent brain whereas less damage occurs in the adult brain.

Because of the developing brain, adolescents become addicted more easily than adults do.

A recent study of marijuana users showed that those who began using it in their teens had substantially reduced connectivity among brain areas responsible for learning and memory.

A large, long-term study in New Zealand showed that people who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teen years lost an average of 8 IQ points between ages 13 and 38, even when they stopped using as an adult.

MWELL conducts research at schools which looks at the prevalence of mental health issues such as depression; anxiety; stress; anger; alcohol use disorders; and the use of other substances.  Our results at a leading Independent School in South Africa were :

  • 62% of Grade 9s reported drinking alcohol at least once a month during the past year
  • Over 12% were already at risk of moderate to severe alcohol related problems
  • 17.5% had smoked cannabis during the three months prior to completing the questionnaire

Early Intervention makes a difference

These are shocking facts but these brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions. Nor does it mean that they can’t tell the difference between right and wrong.

It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions.”

But it does mean that if we are aware of these developmental differences, we can understand, anticipate, and manage the behaviour of adolescents and be more constructive in our interactions with them.

Remember that the earlier the intervention, the less harm there is, the less the likelihood of permanent risk or damage and the better the treatment outcomes!

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Mich Robb

Mich Robb

Mich Robb, a clinical & educational psychologist. He is the managing directory of MWELL ( Mental Wellbeing interventions) which specialises in help for addiction, substance abuse, trauma and other psychosocial interventions.

6 Responses

    1. Thank-you for your comments Merle. I do a workshop for parents and/or teachers on the same topic if you know anyone who is interested. You can contact me on 0829205129

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