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Why Are Teens so Vulnerable to Addiction? A Closer Look at the Adolescent Brain

Each day, hundreds of teens initiate drugs and alcohol into their lives at a mere 12 to 14 years old. Each year, millions of adolescents are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, and naturally, many of us have trouble wrapping our minds around this shocking reality. At first, we may simply blame their age. They are young; they are acting out; they cannot yet make rational decisions. They are just teenagers, experimenting, trying to claim a social status among their peers. We blame the crowd they are with, their impulses, and sometimes even ourselves, without truly understanding just why this fact is so hard. Perhaps it’s time to really ask ourselves why?

Why are teens so vulnerable to drug addiction? Why do teens act out, and take drugs to begin with? Why are drugs being initiated so early on in adolescence, and why is the scope of these national statistics still growing?

the teenage brain and addictionWe’ve seen it before in our last infographic: Nine out of ten people with substance addictions first begin using before they even turn 18. In fact, substance abuse before the age of 15 can make a person 6.5 times more likely to develop a full-blown substance use disorder later in life. It’s frustrating, and it’s heartbreaking, to see teens today just throw away their potential in the face of drugs. 

We often view teens as irresponsible or immature without recognizing that there is almost always a biological or chemical explanation behind their behavior. During one’s adolescent years, the brain undergoes various changes. It is developing, “re-wiring,” and ultimately preparing a teen to leave home and become independent. But this is a work in progress. The brain does not fully mature until the age of 25, at least.  And while this re-modeling occurs, teenagers simultaneously become inevitably susceptible to certain risks like addiction. 

During our pre-teen years, the area of the brain most responsible for reasoning grows immensely. That growth, however, is pruned back as we reach adolescence, making the prefrontal cortex (the part that controls our ability to make thoughtful, responsible decisions) less active during young adulthood. One’s teenage years, as a result, often involve the most risk-taking; they become the period in life in which a person grows impulsive, misbehaves, and experiments outside of their once-established boundaries. It is not necessarily that teenagers truly intend this risky behavior.  Rather, it is their brains telling them that the consequences don’t necessarily matter. Teenagers, in actuality, do not have full control over their impulses and this puts them at an increased risk for making poor decisions, posing a great threat for early drug and alcohol addiction. 

Drug addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that has long been characterized with impulsive, uncontrollable behaviors and an individual’s continued involvement with substance abuse, despite any negative consequences (similar to the adolescent mindset). It is a brain disease in that drugs literally alter a person’s brain structure and function over prolonged use. Drugs of abuse physically create a series of changes in a person’s brain, beginning with the recognition of pleasure, and ending with a compulsive drive to seek out and again use the drug. It not only changes the brain, it fully changes a person.

Drugs of abuse act quickly once they enter the human body. They create a shortcut straight to the brain’s reward system, and give the user his or her “high.” Upon drug use, the brain is flooded with dopamine, a chemical that produces great euphoric effects in an individual. When taken, drugs can release anywhere from 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine in the brain than natural rewards do, such as eating and sex. The brain creates a memory of this rapid satisfaction, forms a conditioned response, and further leads one to repeat use and again obtain the same pleasure. 
In adolescents, dopamine levels are only baseline, thus explaining their constant boredom and need to try new things. When they do, the amount of dopamine released in their brain is actually much higher than that of adults. Combine this with repeated drug use and the fact that teens are already prone to adventure and risk-taking behaviors, and you’ve got a recipe for addiction in the future. 

Dr. Frances Jensen of Children’s Hospital Boston explains, “Brain development is actively transpiring even in the teen brain, and [if] you throw in a drug on top of that, you could change the trajectory of brain development.”

While we should continue to look at addiction as a brain disease, we should also consider it a form of learning in the sense that it truly imprints the adolescent brain. Because their brains are not fully developed, and because they cannot fully reason their decisions, teenagers are more prone to develop a substance use disorder and to develop it much more quickly than adults. This is important for teens to understand—they are not invincible, and the consequences of early exposure can be extreme. If and when an addiction occurs, they may not want to accept it as a disease. They may not know how to cope with it among friends, and families, at such a young age. That is where we come in. Our aim at Turnbridge is to ease a transition for young men needing drug treatment, and to help them understand that their addiction can be dangerous when left unattended. 

You are also a part of this process— as adults, as parents, as educators, and as addiction professionals. Teenagers today are often pigeonholed into a certain stereotype, and not taken as seriously as they should be, despite the fact that they very well are the next most influential generation. Yet these are the years that adults, and parents especially, should take most seriously: teenage brains, in our presence and out, are being strongly influenced every single day, both biologically and environmentally. It is important that we influence them for the better.