Teen addictions: what are they, and how can they be prevented?
Our teenage years are some of the most difficult and confusing of our lives. Puberty leaves teens in a state of flux for lengthy periods, and our emotions struggle to cope with the changes taking place.
With each passing year, a teenager makes a significant transition. While you may not notice much of a change between your 24th and 25th birthdays, the difference between 14 and 15 can be far more conspicuous. A teenager can become a very different person in the space of a year — and these changes are not always easy.
Interests and friendship groups often shift as classmates alter, the mind develops, and peer pressure comes into play. It is therefore very easy to fall in with a crowd who are a negative influence or to become reclusive and isolated if making friends is a struggle. It is in these situations that addictions can take hold.
Addictions can range from extremely dangerous and life-threatening to more benign — but they are all very serious.
Common addictions may include:
• Drug Abuse
• Social media
Also included in this guide will be information on eating disorders, which are often grouped with the above list due to their prevalence, similar psychology and propensity to cause serious harm.
The psychological issues that affect teenagers are significant in bringing about addiction, and exposing teens to things to which they might become addicted. The American National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that environmental and biological conditions are also factors (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction).
Environmental causes can include the following:
• The local community
Exposure to certain substances or behaviours in school, at home or in the local area can cause addiction later on. A teenager’s desire to fit in can lead them to directly follow the example of friends, family, classmates or neighbours, and frequent exposure has a tendency to normalise a given habit or substance. Likewise, failure to perform well at school or make friends can quickly lead to a path of bad habits, reckless behaviour and addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40% and 60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction stems from genetic factors, including a family history of drug abuse or alcoholism. Though a family history of alcoholism does not mean that family members are guaranteed to become alcoholics, the high exposure may make them more susceptible.
Additionally, there is a higher risk of addiction in teenagers as their brains are still in development, and the brain’s ability to regulate self-control is not yet fully operational. The decision-making centre of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, does not fully develop until age 25 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24173194), and is prone to dysfunction up until that point. This is why we make rash decisions as teenagers, and why many psychologists now designate age 25 as the beginning of adulthood.
This tendency towards ill-thought-out choices, combined with the pleasure gained from the dopamine released during the consumption of things like alcohol and drugs, makes for a potent combination — it can be very difficult to think rationally about consequences when faced with certain temptations.
Psychological factors can also make addiction prominent.
Teenagers are still trying to find their identity, and are interested in meeting and, crucially, impressing, people who will help them to become the person they want to be. They are therefore extremely susceptible to peer pressure.
Hormone imbalances bring about recklessness and mood swings, and their new-found freedom and sexual impulses can cause significant anxiety and excitement (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-adolescent-brain-beyond-raging-hormones).
The combination of these environmental, biological and psychological factors makes teen addiction reasonably common, and largely out of a parent or guardian’s control.
How to tackle addictions
It is impossible to track your child’s every move — and inadvisable to try.
But you can attempt to be vigilant about who your children spend time with, and think carefully about whether any of those people are bad influences. This way, you’ll be able to take the necessary moves to remove your child from that group or relationship. This might be with a friend, romantic interest or classmate, but it may also be with a family member or neighbour.
Involvement in a teenager’s academic life is also useful, including regular contact with teachers and advisors. Teachers are knowledgeable about teenage life and are often well attuned to trends and schoolyard gossip. Heads of year and tutors are likely to see your children among their peers and friends more often than you as a parent — they will be happy to share information and listen to your concerns.
Being open about drugs, sex and addictions is important — silence on these taboo subjects can bring about the unhealthy curiosity from which addiction is born. Educating on the realities of these subjects, as well as instilling self-control, is a crucial part of helping your kids avoid addiction.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common addictions, and think about how to spot the signs and reduce the danger.
What are the facts?
As cigarettes become increasingly expensive and well regulated, smoking is more and more difficult. Regular smoking at under age 16 is at a relatively low 3% in the UK, but 18% have tried smoking at least once. This latter statistic becomes more troubling when you take into account that 40% of regular adult smokers tried smoking for the first time when they were under 16 (https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/risk/childhood-smoking#heading-Zero).
Also of significance is a recent study that has suggested that 69% of people who try a single cigarette go on to become regular smokers (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/10/one-cigarette-may-lead-to-habit-for-more-than-two-thirds-of-people). According to Cancer Research UK, smoking prevalence is higher in children whose parents, siblings or peers smoke.
The earlier a person starts smoking, the more damage they will inflict on their body. Aside from this cumulative effect, which can bring about lung, mouth and bowel cancer among other diseases, smoking can have a negative impact on your child’s life in a more day-to-day way.
It can bring about illness, depression and anxiety. Shortness of breath and a lack of physical fitness can damage a teen’s school life, and make them lethargic and unhealthy. Poor hair and skin are also brought about by smoking, which can lead to low self-esteem and bullying.
A new study has also shown that nicotine dependence can damage the developing prefrontal cortex, causing attention deficits, or even psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairments (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543069/). Such an issue could potentially have lasting effects on a teenager’s grades, and on their academic performance in later life too.
How can it be treated?
If you think that your teenager is addicted to tobacco, then it is important to treat them as an adult, rather than a child. An important psychological factor in their starting smoking is a desire to be more grown up and mature, and enjoy some of the luxuries that grown-ups are entitled to.
Give your teens the facts, and try and work out with them how they are going to stop. The NHS Choices website offers very useful advice on how to do this (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/quit-smoking/10-self-help-tips-to-stop-smoking/) and there is a wealth of other information online. Next, consult a GP on the best methods to quit, and ask for prescriptions for things like nicotine gum, sprays or patches.
It’s also a good idea to completely remove any smoking material, paraphernalia or reminders of smoking from the house — even if you smoke yourself. If you do smoke, then you might want to consider doing so somewhere outside the house.
Be sure to mention the money that they’ll save by quitting, and encourage them to save that money for something they’d enjoy, such as a holiday.
What are the facts?
Attitudes towards alcohol in the UK can vary from relaxed in families who give teens a drink on special occasions, to very strict, such as in a religious household with a zero-tolerance policy.
A recent survey (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/15/middle-class-parents-fuelling-teen-drinking-new-figures-show) found little to no evidence that a more relaxed attitude, by which parents attempt to encourage ‘responsible’ drinking and a cultured appreciation of alcohol, lessened teenagers’ desire to binge drink. Such teenagers were just as likely to drink irresponsibly as those from stricter homes.
While occasional drinking, particularly for those over the age of 15, isn’t a problem in itself, more heavy consumption of alcohol interrupts a teenager’s natural development. It slows the development of the nervous system, tissue and bone growth, and also hinders organ function.
It can have a long-term effect on the brain too, decreasing memory, intellectual skills, and the ability to concentrate. Not to mention the damage that drinking does to the liver, and to estrogen and testosterone levels, which can negatively impact the ability to reproduce (https://www.projectknow.com/research/teen-alcoholism/).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also noted that if a young adult consumes alcohol before the age of 15, the likelihood of dependence or abuse later in life is six times greater than if they started at 21 (https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm).
Similarly alarming is the fact that alcohol can act as a ‘gateway’ drug (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/marijuana-isnt-a-gateway-drug-if-anything-alcohol-is-10214880.html). It is an important part of UK culture and is positioned at the head of a drug abuse ‘chain’, in which the consumption of minor substances is often followed by harder drugs. Recklessness induced by alcohol can quickly lead to more serious drug addiction, given the right exposure.
This recklessness is a significant issue: overdoing it can cause alcohol poisoning, and accidents regularly occur that can range from minor to life-threatening.
Teenagers are also particularly vulnerable to physical harm when they’ve been drinking, finding themselves exposed to hostility and harassment. Recent research by Drinkaware and Ipsos Mori discovered that among 10-17 year olds who have had an alcoholic drink, 12% have experienced serious harm as a result. This included trouble with the police, being a victim of crime, being taken to a hospital or getting into a fight
However, it’s not all bad news: fewer and fewer teenagers are drinking, as demonstrated by the most recent NHS study into the matter: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2016.
How can it be treated?
Due to the potential physical and mental dangers of heavy alcohol abuse on teenagers, it is important to recognise the symptoms and act quickly.
The following signs may indicate alcohol issues in teenagers:
• Becoming disinterested in school or extracurricular activities
• Regularly drinking too quickly
• Lying about drinking habits
• Engaging in risky or aggressive behavior while drinking
• Needing alcohol to relax or deal with problems
• Withdrawal or isolation
• Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
• Issues at school
• Sudden changes in friendship groups
• Dishonesty or theft
Unlike smoking, which can be addressed gradually, an abrupt halt to alcohol consumption is essential to kicking an alcohol addiction: your teenager must go ‘cold turkey’. They will likely also need professional counselling services or medical assistance.
Detox and rehab facilities are crucial in halting alcohol addiction before the problem worsens or results in serious accidents or diseases.
Preventative measures can be taken, however, which will ensure that your teens are informed of alcohol’s dangers, and are less likely to become addicted to it. These can include reducing the amount that you drink in your children’s presence, particularly when they are younger, and liaising with other parents and teachers if you have any concerns about binge drinking.
What are the facts?
Drugs can vary enormously in their nature — some are far more harmful than others. But that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take soft drug abuse seriously: addictions can quickly take root, and may easily occur in later life as a result of normalised drug use as a teenager.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of teenagers don’t take drugs, and even fewer take Class A or harder drugs. 76% of young people aged 11-15 say that they have never taken drugs, according to the drugs awareness charity Mentor (https://mentoruk.org.uk/get-the-facts/).
However, the likelihood of drug taking increases with age. Mentor note that while 11% of 11-year-olds have taken drugs, the amount increases to 37% when 15-year-olds are surveyed, with cannabis being the most widely-used illegal substance. Class A substances like crack and heroin are rarely used among teenagers, and are not anywhere near as readily available.
However, cannabis is a gateway drug and can lead a teen into harder abuse later in their life when Class A substances become affordable and available. It’s therefore important to prevent its use early on.
Cannabis can have a very negative effect on brain development and alter a teen’s ability to socialise and concentrate. Paranoia is also a significant problem in cannabis and drug abuse, causing mental health issues throughout the teenage years and into adulthood.
All of these can have a big impact on academic success and general happiness.
How can it be treated?
If you are worried that your children are taking softer drugs such as cannabis, start with the following steps:
• Be aware of their friends and activities. Peer pressure is a common cause of drug abuse, and knowing their friends will allow you insight into their lives.
• Pick a practical time to talk — on their terms. You may frustrate and alienate your teenagers if you make them late for another commitment. Don’t start the talk off on the wrong foot.
• Encourage openness, and engage with your teenager. Be available for them if they ever want to discuss anything drug-related, and be honest about the subject.
• Don’t panic. If your child has taken drugs, you are likely to be emotional. But express concern rather than anger, as this may drive them away.
If your child has been taking harder, Class A drugs, then it is also important not to panic — but similarly important to act quickly. Seek advice from your child’s school and the NHS, and look into intervention and rehabilitation if the problem is serious. It is again important to express love, sympathy and concern rather than anger or disappointment if your son or daughter is addicted to drugs.
What are the facts?
We’re including eating disorders in this guide as they constitute such a prevalent danger to teenagers — one that is comparable to addiction.
Eating disorders are extremely dangerous and are considered to be mental illnesses rather than addictions. Disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are very common, with 1.25 million sufferers across the UK according to the eating disorder charity Beat (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics). The majority of sufferers are female, and reports estimate the percentage of male sufferers to be between 11% and 25% (https://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/about/statistics). The condition has a significant effect during adolescence, and eating disorders generally begin at the ages of 16 to 17.
The symptoms of eating disorders vary. Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is the loss of weight due to the limitation of energy intake. Food is usually restricted, and intense exercise is taken to compensate for it. Sufferers may also binge (eat large amounts) and then purge.
The main issue faced by sufferers is a distorted image of themselves — they often think that their bodies are larger than they really are. This brings about an acute anxiety surrounding gaining weight and eating food. Eating disorder sufferers often find it difficult to accept that they must eat, even if they are very thin.
Bulimia sufferers often eat large quantities of food, and compensate for it by vomiting, fasting, taking laxatives or exercising. During a binge, they may not feel connected to what they’re doing, or to themselves, and may eat things that they usually try to avoid. They also may hide their illness from those around them: bulimia is one of the most difficult eating disorders to recognise because sufferers frequently maintain a weight that others consider ‘normal’.
Here are some more facts that illustrate the danger of eating disorders, and the importance of their swift treatment:
• They have the highest mortality rates of psychiatric disorders.
• Anorexia, specifically, has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders in adolescence.
• Much of the mortality rate linked to eating disorders is due to high suicide rates.
• In a recent study, it was found that most inpatients treated for eating disorders were very young — averaging at age 15 for girls, and 14 for boys.
How can it be treated?
Common signs of anorexia may include:
• Secrecy and misleading comments about food
• Strict dieting
• Excessive calorie counting
• Weight loss
• Stomach pains
• Social withdrawal
• Obsessive behaviour around food
Common signs of bulimia may include:
• Frequently checking body weight or shape, or avoidance of doing so
• Frequently comparing their body to others’
• Organising life around binge/purge routine
• Stomach pain
• Damage to teeth
• Secrecy around eating
Both anorexia and bulimia are mental illnesses, so outward symptoms, though common, aren’t always necessarily apparent. In keeping with this, it is important to address the underlying issues that cause the disorders rather than simply the symptoms themselves — this is best left to a professional.
If you’re worried that your son or daughter has or is developing an eating disorder, it is vital to seek help without delay by booking an appointment with a GP. Treatment should be evidence-based, and can include self-help techniques as well as face-to-face counselling.
What are the facts?
When compared to the risks of eating disorders or drug addiction, social media issues may seem insignificant. However, this is far from the truth: social media is a relatively uncharted area in which teenagers can quickly fall in with the wrong crowd, become interested in unsavoury or dangerous subjects, be scammed, or be at risk from predators and cyber-bullies.
It also is addictive in itself — more and more teenagers find it very difficult to switch off their phones or other devices before bed.
Let’s look at some of the stats:
• Up to 24% of teenagers say they are online ‘almost constantly’, and 92% go online daily
• 76% of teens use social media (81% of older teens, 68% of 13 to 14-year-olds)
• 59% of parents say their teen is ‘addicted’ to their mobile device
• 50% of teens say they are addicted to their mobile device
Using social media and electronic devices leads to overstimulation of the brain, making kids continually go back to the given site or platform even if they don’t like what they find there.
Teens have a fear of feeling left out of a joke or conversation because they have missed out on gossip or moments of cultural significance. This addictive behaviour is said to bring about depression, as teens are continually searching for enjoyment that they rarely find.
Follows, ‘likes’, comments or friend requests on social media act as incentives for being active on social media — even if there is little subsequent reward. This adds an element of competition to social media, which can lead to depression in teenagers who consider themselves to have underperformed, as well as bullying (https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/teens-social-media-addiction/).
The continual angling of social media towards teens — with teenage ‘influencers’, bloggers and celebrities that are both accessible and active online — combined with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, can lead to a dangerous propensity to seek thrills and gratification (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-johnson/teens-addicted-to-social-_b_9696378.html_). This has a similar effect to computer games and even the effects of alcohol or narcotics.
The relative anonymity of social media users is also concerning. Though a teenager may assume that they are interacting with someone their own age, the person behind the screen may be someone entirely different, leading to potentially very dangerous situations.
How can it be treated?
Social media is by no means a force for evil: it now plays an important role in defining a teenage personality and can be an excellent tool for staying in touch with friends, especially if they’ve moved away. However, overdoing it and being reckless can be very dangerous.
These are a few tell-tale signs of social media overuse:
• Your teen is spending more and more time online.
• Your teen seems preoccupied with being online and has trouble cutting back.
• Your teen lies about social media use.
• Your teen shows signs of anxiety after having spent time online.
It’s therefore important to set limits. Social media is not only addictive in itself, but the blue light of a phone can bring about insomnia, which may hinder progress at school. Limit internet access through negotiation with your child, or even arrange to remove their phones and devices entirely at certain points of the day, such as an hour before bed. This will allow them to have a better night’s sleep and will encourage them to limit their addiction (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/family/screens-teens-survival-tips-parents-technology-battlefield/).
If the problem has become more serious and your teen’s health is suffering, then professional help might be required. Speak to teachers and GPs to figure out the best course of action. It may be that counselling or self-help is needed to kick the habit.
What are the facts?
Like social media addiction, gaming addictions are very serious.
Whether they’re light quizzes and boardgame-style activities played on smartphones, or more serious and complex adventures, shoot-em-ups or strategy games played on a desktop or console, computer games are incredibly engaging, and optimised to ensure that players want to continue playing. They are both fun and frustrating, a combination which makes them very addictive.
New technology has made them even more so. Online multiplayer modes have made computer games increasingly immersive, and players no longer have to be in the same room or house to play with their friends. Competitions can take place between players across the globe in different time zones.
The overall effect of this is that gamers find it difficult to switch off either their consoles or their brains. This is particularly dangerous for teenagers: they are quick learners due to their abundance of dendrites (branched extensions of nerve cells), which means that they are easily able to advance through the levels of the game (https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2015/11/15/gaming-teens-addiction_n_8526372.html).
The overall effect can be not only overstimulation of the brain, which can cause things like sleep deprivation, but extreme preoccupation with gaming in teenagers.
Such preoccupation is brought about by the dopamine rush that follows a success or the solving of a problem in a game. The brain may then associate computer games with dopamine rushes and releases, which makes it difficult for gamers to quit (https://www.projectknow.com/research/video-game-addiction/).
According to a recent research paper, addictive video gamers play more than a total of 24 hours per week, and are more than twice as likely to develop disorders like ADD, get into fights, have health problems (including poor hygiene, wrist pain and irregular eating habits), and achieve poor results at school (https://www.geoclickz.com/blog/arts_and_entertainment/new-facts-video-game-addiction-problem-more-widespread-than-expected).
How can it be treated?
Gaming addiction can be treated both by parents and by professionals.
These are some of the signs that your child might be developing, or has developed, a gaming addiction:
• They spend excessive time in their bedroom.
• They are too tired to attend or perform well at school.
• They withdraw from outside activities.
• They are aggressive and have mood swings.
• They are difficult to communicate with.
• They keep irregular hours and may miss mealtimes.
Teenagers can become very irritable and combative when asked to stop playing computer games or have their computer games taken away from them. An article in The Telegraph reported that a parent was forced to hide the internet router and confiscate video controllers in order to get their child to stop playing (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/family/screens-teens-survival-tips-parents-technology-battlefield/).
However, such extreme steps may not be necessary. A negotiated set of rules is an excellent way to ensure that both you and your teenager are satisfied — if they break the rules, you can take more serious actions. Things like ensuring your kids continue with their chores and extracurricular activities, and are out of the house for a decent amount of their leisure time, are great ways to limit the time they spend playing computer games.
Likewise, setting up their games outside rather than inside their room is useful to stop them from playing through the night. Such rules will ensure that gaming remains a hobby, instead of an addiction.
If your child has developed a more serious problem, then professional help such as counselling should be sought.
Ways to treat addiction
Serenity Health Group offers specialised support for teen addiction, from confidential guidance and rehabilitation to aftercare and counselling. We offer flexible admission and support to ensure that teenagers are able to work around their exams and classes, so their studies don’t have to suffer.
If you think your teenage son or daughter is suffering from any of the addictions discussed in this guide, then call today. Our confidential helpline is completely free, and we can discuss your options with no obligations. We’re open 24 hours.
Free confidential phone line: 0800 118 2892
From outside the UK please call: +44 (0)203 151 1280 (normal charges apply)