Teens & Young Adults

The Impact of Addiction on Teenagers

The Impact of Addiction on Teenagers

Teenagers make up a large portion of the population in the United States. According to the 2019 census, about 21.05 million young people between the ages of 15 and 19 live in the U.S. Sadly, some of these teens will become addicted to alcohol or drugs over the course of their lives, and some will become addicted in their teenage years.

For a long time, rates of addiction among teens and young adults have been on the rise. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, one out of every eight teens reported abusing an illicit substance in the last year. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teen drug use rose significantly as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Remarkably, however, reported illicit substance use declined in 2021 according to the Monitoring the Future survey from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Still, teen and young adult drug and alcohol use remain a grave concern.

What does teen drug use entail? Teen drug use may involve marijuana use, opioid use, stimulants, amphetamines, inhalants, prescription drug abuse, alcohol consumption, or a range of illicit drugs. One important aspect of teen drug use is that alcohol abuse and substance abuse impacts teenagers and young adults differently than it does older adults. Teen substance use can have significant negative impacts on both their mental health, overall health, and wellbeing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that teens can be adversely impacted by addiction and substance use in the following three areas:

  • It can interfere with growth and development (particularly brain development)
  • It can increase engagement in risky behaviors such as risky sexual behavior and dangerous driving.
  • It can contribute to the development of other problems as an adult such as sleep disorders, mental health disorders, health conditions like heart disease, and more.

But that’s not all. The earlier in life a teen starts drinking alcohol or using another substance, the greater their risk of developing substance use disorders later in life, which is why it’s vital to spread awareness about the dangers of teens using alcohol and drugs.

Alcohol and Teens

Drinking alcohol during adolescence is often seen as a "rite of passage". However, consuming alcohol even in small amounts during these formative years can adversely affect teens' brains and bodies, both short- and long-term.

Alcohol affects the brain in various ways. Some of the short-term effects of alcohol on the teen brain are:

  • It increases the chance that they will engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, drunk or drugged driving, as well as violent or aggressive behaviors.
  • It interferes with making good decisions.
  • It makes them more likely to be unaware of dangerous situations and possible consequences.
  • It increases the risk of injuries from falls and motor vehicle accidents.

In addition, there are long-term effects related to teens drinking alcohol. Consuming alcohol as a teen can change the way the brain develops leading to:

  • A negative impact on learning processes and information processing
  • An increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life

In addition to these short- and long-term consequences, consuming large amounts of alcohol can lead to overdose and death. The first sign of drinking too much is loss of consciousness or passing out. When the body has too much alcohol, the gag reflex and even breathing can be inhibited. As a result, teens can vomit and choke or stop breathing altogether.

Although teenage drinking has become commonplace and somewhat accepted by society, it’s important to understand that the inherent dangers of teenagers drinking are significant and real.

Drugs and Teen’s Brain Development

There has been a lot of research about the effects of drugs on the teenage brain. Drug use interferes not only with the way the brain functions, but it can also lead to permanent changes in the brain. These changes can then negatively impact school or work, as well as relationships with family members and loved ones. Changes in the teenage brain due to drug use can also increase a person's chances of becoming addicted.

There are three main areas of the brain impacted by drugs:

  1. Brain Stem. This part of the brain is in charge of all the functions needed to stay alive. Breathing, digesting food, and circulating blood are all examples of functions controlled by the brain stem.

  2. Limbic System. This area of the brain controls emotions and emotional responses.

  3. Cerebral Cortex. This part of the brain makes up three-fourths of the entire brain and is responsible for everything from sensory experience to decision making, planning, and solving problems.

The Teenage Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic System

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for critical thinking, making decisions and solving problems. It's also the location of working memory. In teens, the prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. This vital part of the brain won't fully develop until a person is in their mid-twenties.

Since the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties, the teen brain relies more on the limbic system to help with decision making. As mentioned, the limbic system is in charge of emotions. This means that teens tend to make decisions based more on emotions and immediate gratification than on critical thinking. For this reason, teens make decisions that are riskier, decisions that focus on immediate feelings rather than thought-out consequences.

Dopamine and the Teenage Brain

Addiction is closely linked to dopamine, one of the "feel good" chemicals in the brain. Dopamine is produced whenever a person experiences something pleasurable or rewarding. For example, eating a piece of pizza or winning a game can spur dopamine production.

Drugs also cause a dopamine release; however, a drug-related dopamine release is more intense than one derived from a more natural experience. A teenager’s limbic system is more sensitive to dopamine, and after a drug-caused dopamine experience, teens often experience stronger cravings for the drug. This craving can put them at greater risk for developing a drug addiction.

Drugs and Teen Brain Functioning

As the teen body grows and changes, so does the brain. The brain naturally strengthens connections between some neuronal pathways and prunes others. When drugs are used, this natural process is compromised, changing the way the brain organizes synapses and how the brain functions. Problems brought on by drug use, including issues with learning, problem-solving, mood swings, and attention deficits, can all last well into adulthood.

If you are a teen with a substance abuse problem and want to stop, Caron can help. If you are a parent or guardian of a teen with an alcohol or drug problem, contact us for more information on treatment options. At Caron, we believe recovery isn’t just possible—it’s probable! Call today at 1-800-854-6023.

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