Young People and addictions - Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is a problem for teenagers as well as adults and there are a variety of reasons as to why this is the case.

These include peer pressure, growing up in a household where one or both parents take drugs or having a genetic tendency towards addiction. Films, television and the media is another factor.

The teenage brain and addiction

There is the issue of whether teenagers are more prone to drug addiction due to the fact that their brains are still developing. This development means that the parts of the brain which are responsible for decision making and impulse control are less well developed than others. These include areas which control instant gratification and emotional expression.

This manifests itself in teenagers who engage in impulsive and risky action without too much thought for the consequences. The desire for pleasure or an instant ‘buzz’  overrides other considerations such as the likelihood of harm to the user or the potential overspill into other areas of their lives. This also includes the consequences of their actions upon others, for example their parents, other members of their family or friends.

Let’s be honest here: how many of us when we were young participated in risky activities without bothering about whether it might do us harm or not?

We have all been young and part of growing up is engaging in risky or forbidden activities. Sometimes it is a case that the more risky or illegal an activity the greater the attraction.

What we do know is that there appears to be an ever increasing number of young people who report an addiction. This covers all forms of addiction, for example alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, solvents, ecstasy and heroin.

Caffeine is another problem in that many young people enjoy energy drinks such as Red Bull. This drink along with many other similar drinks contains high amounts of caffeine and is drunk for the fact that it increases energy, focus and concentration. As the advert says, it does ‘give you wings’ but it is possible to become addicted to these drinks which cause problems in the long term.

So why do young people become addicted?

Young people are attracted to caffeine, hard drugs, alcohol and smoking for any number of reasons.

But one of the most common reasons is that of peer pressure.

Peer pressure Young people are obsessed with being part of the group and trying to ‘fit in’. This means wearing the same clothes, speaking the same language and doing the same things. If the group they wish to be part of does drugs then it is very difficult not to do the same.

In some cases they feel as if they have to take drugs to be accepted into the group.

Another reason is taking drugs or drinking alcohol as part of a ‘dare’ or trying to show their maturity.

The teenage years are a difficult time in that a young person is no longer a child but is not quite an adult and is trying to assert their individualism and identity at that time. But friendships and being part of a group are immensely important at this time and it a young person would rather adapt their behaviour to that of the group rather than risk rejection.

There is also the fact that smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs are seen as acts of rebellion. Young people know that these potentially harmful substances are bad for them which make them even more attractive. Plus the thought of doing something that is both risky and frowned upon by adults only adds to the excitement. It is tempting to indulge in this behaviour when part of a group as many young people don’t believe that it will lead to an addiction or even damage their health in the long run.

It is easy to think that one is immortal when young and that nothing will go wrong.

But taking an illicit substance when young can result in an addiction that will stay with them into adulthood.

What can happen is that a young person starts off by having a smoke or a few drinks but this escalates to harder substances such as cannabis, cocaine or ecstasy. It is easy to spiral out of control and if everyone else is doing it then why should they be any different.

It used to be the crafty cigarette behind the school bike sheds but stronger drugs are being consumed now which have a greater effect upon a teenager than an adult and in some cases, can be fatal.

Smoking and/or drinking are often seen as a ‘cool’ or adult thing to do but it is a case of trying to educate young people about the dangers of these. This will hopefully, enable them to make a rational decision about whether to try these or not.

There are special agencies set up which deal with drug addiction in young people and can offer help and advice. One such agency is FRANK which provides information about drugs and invites people to contact them if they need help or advice.

Their details can be found on our links page.

Home life/environment

If a young person is brought up in a household where drugs are discussed freely, are available or are seen as part of everyday life then they are at risk of developing an addiction.

If you were growing up in a home where cigarettes, alcohol or drugs are not viewed as anything out of the ordinary then it is logical that you will see them in the same way.

There are situations in which children and teenagers grow up in a house where drugs are being distributed and/or taken. If this is combined with what can only be described as a ‘chaotic’  lifestyle, possibly with poverty and deprivation then the triggers are there for addiction.

This is not to say that every youngster who grows up in those surroundings will become a drug addict but there is a greater risk of this happening than for someone from a stable background.

However, drug addiction is no respecter of social class, background, income level, location or upbringing. It can affect an affluent middle class family as much as someone living on a rough estate.

The question is that of preventing this from happening in the first place. But it is very difficult to stop this pattern of behaviour which can pass down through families. If you come from a family where your grandparents smoked and/or drank, and your parents did the same then you have a good chance of doing just that.

But this isn’t automatic and there are children and teenagers who manage to avoid this or realise that it is harmful and break the habit.

Is there a genetic role?

There have been studies undertaken into whether a person can have inherited a gene for addiction. There may not be an actual gene but there are aspects of a person’s genetic makeup which make them more vulnerable to drug addiction. Their brain may be hard wired in a particular way which makes them susceptible to certain substances such as alcohol.

People do assume that if several members of a family have an addiction, for example to drugs then they have inherited a gene for this addiction which will be passed down to their children.

This is incorrect and is more likely to be a combination of factors such as susceptibility to addictive behaviour, environment, lifestyle, economic background and so on. So if someone is poor, lives in a deprived area, are friendly with people who smoke, drink or use drugs and is psychologically vulnerable then this can increase the chance of addiction.

If a young person is from that type of background then they are vulnerable to developing a dependency but this is by no means a given right.

It may not be due to any genetic tendencies but more a case of socialisation in that the young person has grown up with smoking, drinking or drug use in their family and sees it as acceptable behaviour.

What about advertising and the media?

Teenagers are very susceptible to the power of advertising and are a target consumer group by various companies who understand the attraction to this age group.

Both film and television present lifestyles which often include these substances and in a certain way which makes them ‘cool’ or desirable to teenagers. Fashion and music magazines, the Internet and other forms of advertising focus upon celebrity lifestyles which also include substance abuse and these can appeal to impressionable teenagers.

Many young people aspire to the celebrity lifestyle and if this includes drinking, smoking or taking drugs then they may do the same as part of the desire to have that lifestyle.

Whatever the reason the main issue is that of prevention: if this is not possible then a suitable course of treatment. Talking to young people about the risks of drug addiction is important as this will hopefully prevent addiction happening in the first place.

If not then it is a case of treating the addiction and providing help and support throughout the process.

Treatment for an addiction is a long and time consuming process that can be difficult for both the addict and people around them. This applies equally to adults and children and is discussed in great detail in our treating a drug addiction section.


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