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Teens and Substance Use: The Importance of Protecting Young Minds

Alcohol and substance use affects adolescents and teens differently than adults.

Alcohol and substance use are common among teens and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two-thirds of teens have tried alcohol by 12th grade, roughly half have tried cannabis, and 40% have smoked cigarettes.

"Far from a rite of passage, using alcohol and other drugs at an early age creates risks for substance use problems," said Steven A. Shapiro, MD, chair, Department of Pediatrics, Jefferson Abington Hospital. "For example, a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health found that teens who experiment with alcohol before age 15 are seven times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder later in life than those who wait until they are legal age."

At the core of the heightened risk around teen use of alcohol and other drugs is their still-developing brains. Using substances that affect the way the brain works may interrupt this critical period in their brain development.

Alcohol and Other Drug Use During Critical Period

Critical periods are important times in the development of a young person's brain. Many parents may be familiar with the critical period from birth to roughly age five, when the brain is growing and developing rapidly. This is why young children seem to learn and adapt so quickly during this time.

"There is another critical period in adolescence and young adulthood, which roughly coincides with the teen years up until age 25," said Dr. Shapiro. "At this stage of life, the brain is changing and growing into its adult form."

When a young person uses alcohol or other drugs during this critical period, it can change the brain and the way it functions. Normally, neurotransmitters like dopamine spike in response to activities you enjoy—like exercising, attending a concert or being around friends and loved ones. Using substances like alcohol and other drugs creates a similar spike, but that spike is much more significant and lasts for a longer time.

After chronic alcohol and drug use, the teenage brain may not produce as much dopamine naturally and there may not be as many receptors in the brain to receive the neurotransmitters that are produced. As a result, it becomes more difficult to feel happy without the substance of choice, and teen users may also have more trouble with cognitive tasks and their overall mental health.

What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Children's Growing Brains

Research shows that parents and guardians have a significant role to play in helping to protect the growing brains of teens and young adults. Typically, teens are at greater risk when they:

  • Lack family support or experience ineffective communication with caregivers
  • Don't feel safe at home or school
  • Lack clear boundaries and expectations
  • Lack good peer, parental and adult role models

"Keeping the lines of communication open with your teen is an important part of helping them navigate this challenging life stage," said Dr. Shapiro. "Consistently talking about the risks associated with alcohol and drug use can significantly reduce the chances that they'll use these substances before adulthood."

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