Alcohol use among American teens is very high, and drug use is not low – one survey states that 42.5% of teens tried drugs, and 16% were classified as drug abusers. But why do so many teenagers feel the need to try drugs? While some people might be tempted to use a single, oversimplified explanation, the truth is that there are many answers. Dr. David Sack has come up with 10 of them.
Genes and stress cause problems
Sack identifies genes as a risk factor, and as proof, he states that children of alcoholics are two to four times more likely to be alcoholics themselves. And that’s leaving aside children who are born with addictions that were created from conception as a result of having addicted mothers. He also notes the importance of stress and boredom, two ever-present factors in the lives of teens. He cites an official survey that shows highly stressed teens become twice as likely as their peers to abuse substances. Mental health conditions also make teens more vulnerable to drug abuse.
Family issues are triggers
One important issue Sack raises is an unbalanced relationship with parents. When parents are not involved enough with their children’s lives, when they’re too demanding or too lax, or when discipline is inconsistent or too severe, abuse can follow. Of course, any type of family conflict can trigger this problem too. This connects to another of the 10 reasons: childhood trauma, which can include serious abuse, an experience with familial death, or a jailed parent. On a lesser scale, a lack of success in school can be another risk factor.
Society also contributes to abuse
Then there’s the problem of looking cool with peers. Teenagers with drug-using friends have a threefold-higher risk of becoming habitual marijuana smokers, according to one study Sack mentions. Also, some teens don’t consider drug use harmful and may see their family or society as promoting or accepting such usage. Sacks lists this as a separate factor from that of peer pressure.
The ninth one is the wider issue of being in a community that lacks positive outlets and has widespread drug abuse and poverty. This obviously puts any teen in a situation where it’s easier to get hooked on drugs.
The inability to control yourself is a key
One particularly interesting factor is the last one we’ll cover: having an impulsive personality. Kids who like intense sensations and who do not have the ability to control impulses have a greater risk of abusing drugs. Their brains reveal more about this, as a University of Vermont study shows.
By taking magnetic images of almost 2,000 teens (all aged 14), scientists found that there was reduced activity in the orbitofrontal cortex of those who experimented with drugs. This reduction appears to be a cause of impulsiveness that leads to drug taking. The images were taken during an active study in which the teens had to learn to control behavior. So once again there is a genetic and personality link to substance abuse.
The study does not address whether older teens or young adults can evolve away from this lack of self-regulation, whether their brains will function differently as they age, but everyday experience suggests that most teens learn to be more rational and thoughtful. How many people do you know who try the same daredevil behavior at 25 as they did at 15?
The positive influence of sports
But those adults who do abuse may be stuck in the same trap as the teens who were identified in the brain study as high-risk types. So by identifying the at-risk teens, we may be able to find ways to prevent them from developing lifelong habits of abuse. This is where such activities as sports can be useful. Maybe a normal sport like football wouldn’t be enough, but mountain climbing, hang gliding and deep-sea diving are all more than a little thrilling. By substituting a socially acceptable activity that satisfies a teen’s need for risk and strong sensation, we may be able to guide him or her into a positive lifestyle. Further, you can learn many useful skills this way that can be employed in daily life or the working world.
In fact, sports and active hobbies are a great way to combat drug abuse that arises from any of the other nine given causes. In the end, negative stimuli cause abuse of substances, so positive outlets can turn the tables. And there’s a widespread belief that an active, sporty lifestyle is good for your self-esteem and mental health. That’s one of the reasons these activities are promoted so much among children. It would be interesting to see if the teens who experiment with drugs also avoid sports and outdoor hobbies. An educated guess is that they probably do, but let’s see the hard data.