Every year that substance abuse is delayed during the adolescent brain development, the risk of substance abuse disorder decreases. Research shows that substance abuse initiated earlier in adolescence is indicative of a greater prevalence of substance use disorder (SUD) into adulthood. Amid the present epidemic of opioid use disorder and overdose mortality, making the prevention of teen substance abuse a public health priority has never been more critical.
Nine out of 10 people who are dependent upon nicotine, alcohol or other drugs, initiated the use of these substances before they turned 18. Even more concerningly, individuals who engaged in the use of addictive substances prior to turning 15, were found to be seven times more likely to develop a SUD than those who delayed their first use until they were 21 or older.
The vulnerability of the adolescent brain
The adolescent brain is still a developing brain. Parts of the brain processing feelings of reward and pain, driving forces of drug use, are the first to mature during childhood. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for evaluating situations, making logical decisions and controlling emotions, and its connections to other brain regions continue to develop during adolescence.
Hence, adolescents are “biologically wired” to seek new experiences and undertake risks, in the process of shaping their own identity. Teenagers are greatly motivated to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, all the while with limited judgment and decision-making skills.
Further fueled by the desire for new experiences, attempting to deal with personal problems, performing better at school or simply dealing with peer pressure, trying drug may seem an easier and “fun” way to fulfill all of these normal developmental urges.
This, however, is an extremely unhealthy coping tool with far-reaching serious repercussions into the future.
Avoiding the “gateway” substances
Amid the recent legalization of marijuana, scientific evidence has consistently reiterated that the initiation of drug use, whether marijuana, alcohol and/or tobacco use during early adolescence considerably increases the vulnerability to life-long addiction and other harmful consequences.
Several past studies have established correlations between adolescent marijuana use to a greater progression to other illicit drug use, deeming marijuana, alcohol and tobacco “gateway” drugs to future illegal drug abuse.
A recent study conducted by DuPont et al. found that young adolescents currently using marijuana were 8.9 times more likely to use cigarettes, 5.6 times more likely to drink heavily and 9.9 times more likely to use other illicit drugs.
Youth with current heavy alcohol use were 15.7 times more likely to report marijuana use, 16.8 times more likely to report illegal drug use and 13.4 times more likely to report cigarette consumption.
Past-month cigarette smokers were seven times more likely to report marijuana use, 7.7 times more likely to indulge in illicit drug use and 4.2 times more likely to consume alcohol.
Unfortunately, statistics propose that by the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high schoolers will have tried alcohol, half will be consuming an illegal drug, nearly 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and more than 20 percent will have misused a prescription drug.
Future prevention, public health policies, and programs, especially considering the current opioid crisis, should focus on approaches that reduce, or at least prevent until later, use of all substances simultaneously.
If you are a parent, communicating the consequences of substance use with your teenager may be a crucial step in preventing early use. If your child is already engaged in a substance use disorder, seeking professional help and providing a healthy support system is critical.
About the Author:
Sana Ahmed is a journalist and social media savvy content writer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills. She has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.
Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. Her recent work has largely been focused upon mental health and addiction recovery.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on February 20, 2019
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 20, 2019
Published on AddictionHope.com