Adolescence is the time when people develop both socially and physically. And when working on their social game, some teens experience peer pressure to try drugs and alcohol, which in turn can lead to the degradation of their physical development.
A survey conducted in 2009 by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health talked to approximately a million students from grade 7–12 in Ontario, about drug use.
Over a 12-year period, alcohol has remained the number one drug of choice for students with 58.2 percent saying they had tried it at least once in the past year, says Karen Leslie, director of Centre for Faculty Development at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Tobacco and cannabis have switched positions, with 25.6 percent of students saying they had tried cannabis and 11.7 percent of students saying they had tried tobacco, in the past year.
“So the good news … is that tobacco use has decreased significantly in teenagers,” says Leslie. “The not-so-good news I would say is that cannabis use has increased dramatically.”
Leslie added that very few 19-year-olds are in high school, which suggests that almost all these adolescents are drinking alcohol while under the legal age in Ontario.
Another thing to note in the survey is 24.7 percent of students said they binge drink, which is to drink five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting, in the past four weeks.
Even more shockingly, three percent of grade 7 students admitted to having five or more drinks in the past four weeks and those numbers climb to a high of almost 50 percent of grade 12 students who admit to binge drinking, says Leslie.
“I think more concerning is that in the four weeks prior to the survey, 17 percent of students reported using cannabis weekly and 3 percent reported using cannabis daily,” says Leslie. “And that represents over 30,000 students of Ontario who actually say that they are using cannabis on a daily basis.”
Leslie says it’s important for adolescents to understand that even though they may have gone through puberty and finished growing physically, their brains are still developing into their early 20s.
Talking about brain development, Leslie points to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention span, reasoning, planning, decision making skills, impulse control and abstract thinking, as one of the most vulnerable areas when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse.
“Studies on adolescents with alcohol abuse have found smaller prefrontal brain and white matter volumes when compared to age-matched individuals,” says Leslie. “There has also been found to be an association between the volume of those prefrontal areas and a correlation to the actual number of drinks taken by an individual.”
Drug use induces pleasure through neural pathways, mainly dopamine pathways, in the brain. Over time these pathways can become sensitized so ongoing drug usage is required at higher dosages of said drugs, according to Leslie.
Even if someone kicks the habit there may be cues in their environment or underlying things that actually are substance-paired cues, which can illicit dopamine release and can trigger use once again.
“Those things can actually emulate use, or worse, trigger a relapse or more use,” she says.
According to Leslie, to stop adolescents from abusing alcohol and drugs we need to change their perception of risk associated with them.
“There have been interesting studies showing that if you are able to shift somebody’s perception of risk of a particular behavior then that may actually result in behavior,” says Leslie.
She alludes to the case of cannabis, stating how the perception of risk associated with it has decreased causing an inverse relation in usage of cannabis. Also the perception of risk with tobacco has increased and thus the usage has also decreased.
Leslie also provides as an example, an interactive educational tool developed by medical students, where they would go to adolescents and show them the risks of cannabis use and ask them which they think their peers should know about.
These teens went on to identify the effects on the developing brain and the association between cannabis use and drinking alcohol as the most important things they would like their peers to know. With their help, a new interactive educational tool was created.
“We then piloted it with groups of young people who were using substances,” says Leslie. “And were actually able to show that as a result of participating in this session we were significantly able to impact and increase their perception of risk associated with using marijuana.”
Leslie also thinks we should be doing away with the terms “hard” and “soft” drugs.
“I think by using that term, soft drug (such as alcohol, tobacco or cannabis) there is a safer message that adolescents and adults get in perception of risk of those substances,” says Leslie.
Providing adolescents with accurate and credible information, so they can make informed decisions, at least in theory, is another suggestion from Leslie.
“I believe that the ideal would be that teenagers should not be using alcohol or any drugs in their adolescent years,” says Leslie. “Having said that, that is not a particularly pragmatic or realistic goal. All around us people are using alcohol and in actual fact teenagers are not the highest users of marijuana in our society, it’s the next age group up.”
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