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Teen Addiction: Causes

If you suspect your teen has a substance abuse problem, it helps to start at the source and learn about what causes habits to turn into addictions. There are many causes and risk factors for teen addiction; there’s no exact formula for predicting it, but a number of common elements we can observe.

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8 min read

What Causes Teen Addiction?

Addiction is a disease that ravages the brain and rewires its reward, motivation and memory circuitries. This leads to insatiable cravings for a particular action or item — whether it’s alcohol, drugs or so on. Substance abuse becomes an addiction when the single-minded pursuit of the substance trumps the user’s well-being despite the obvious damage that’s being done to them.

Teen addiction is complex and its causes are many. Often, it’s a delicate combination of biological and environmental factors that contributes to the prolonged substance abuse and, eventually, addiction. The road to addiction is different for everyone and your teen’s story is a unique one, but there are some risk factors for long-term use to pay close attention to.

Genetics

The likelihood for an addiction greatly increases when there’s a history of addiction in the family. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction can be linked to genetic factors.” Your teen’s problems could very well be traced back a bit in your bloodline.

The body you’re born into matters as well. Males, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are predisposed to have more opportunities to use drugs, abuse them and develop an dependence, which is when the brain is hooked to a substance enough that it convinces the teen to feed their addiction — despite any apparent risks.

There’s no accurate measure or prediction available for how many times a teen can use drugs or other substances before addiction takes hold of the brain. Because each teen’s makeup is different, substance abuse can affect each of them in different ways.

Psychology and the Brain

Drug use activates the brain’s reward circuitry, flooding it with an excess of dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that leave the user feeling pleasure. The neurons in the brain react to the excess dopamine by reducing the number of receptors available for interaction. Prolonged use of these drugs can lead to tolerance, which is when higher doses are required for your brain to be influenced enough to release the amounts of dopamine that can create pleasure anymore. A tolerance to drugs can lead to heavier usage as a teen pushes on towards finding that next high. Eventually, this could develop into a strong dependence on that drug or substance.

There’s also a major correlation in teens between mental health disorders and a proclivity for addiction. A teen battling a mental disorder may be at a higher risk of developing a substance abuse problem as well. When a mental disorder is the cause or effect of a substance use disorder, it is known as a “co-occurring disorder.” Teens with co-occurring disorders are more prone to using drugs longer and relapsing even after recovery. Anxiety, depression and loneliness are other common traits of teens who turn to substance use.

The brain evolves by leaps and bounds during adolescence. Any interruption to this neural development can spell trouble in terms of substance use or other behavior issues. Early drug use can stunt a teenager’s brain development and rewire it to crave or require even more as they grow older. It can also numb the user to the dangers inherent in substance use.

Pressure to Fit In

The pressures of adolescence can definitely factor into the developing teen’s decision-making. Peer pressure is often a catalyst for teens that are looking to make sense of the confusion that comes with their teenage years. A desire to be accepted and to “fit in” can drive a teen to use drugs and other substances despite the consequences. Studies have shown that 65% of teens use drugs just to improve their feelings of self-worth.

Often, it’s these accepted social actions (e.g. drinking at a party, take drugs at a concert, etc.) that can desensitize a teen with regards to drug and substance use. But left unchecked, even just “social drinking” can have damaging long-term effects on a teen. The truth is that addictions in adulthood sometimes begin as casual drug and substance abuse. The pressure to feel accepted in a social setting has long-lasting implications.

Environment

A teen’s environment has a massive impact on their decision-making and perspective. The environment can include the school they go to, the friends they meet and the places where they hang out. Their socioeconomic status and the quality of their home life contribute a great deal as well; kids who live in dangerous parts of town or live in troubled homes can be exposed easily, along with kids who live in overly sheltered or affluent homes. For kids across all income levels, a lack of family bonding or parental supervision can push them towards experimenting and subsequent addictive habits.

Easier Access

More and more, we’re seeing availability and use of drugs crop up across all environments — work, school and play included. In fact, according to teens, access to drugs and alcohol has become easier over the years: 50% say it’s easy to get marijuana and 14.4% says it’s easy to get heroin.

This easier access has crept into schools, especially. According to a 2012 study by Columbia University, more than 60% of high school students say drugs are used, kept or sold at their school. In the same group, 42% of students report knowing at least 1 classmate who uses illegal drugs. Additionally, 86% say they know classmates who drink, smoke or do drugs during the school day; they estimate that around 17% of their classmates engage in at-school usage.

Involvement in Social Media

These days, teens are inundated with references to illicit drug and alcohol use — and it’s not just on TV anymore. With smartphones, other smart technology and easy access to the internet, social media and the digital space now play significant roles in the lives of teens.

In particular, social media has seemed to desensitize the consequences of substance abuse. Over 70% of one popular pro-marijuana Twitter account’s followers are 19 or younger, while only 10% of this account’s posts mention any risks associated with the drug. Access to what kids see online and who they interact with is typically unregulated.

As the ubiquity of social media increases, along with access to these sites opening to younger crowds, we’re starting to see a correlation to teen substance use. Among teens receiving substance abuse treatment, 94% report that their social media friends post drug-related content online and 66% report that seeing this kind of content fed their own urge to use.

Misinformation

A major factor in teen drug abuse and addictive behaviors is misinformation regarding drugs and its effects. Studies show that this misinformation pervades more than you might think: 41% of teens believe it’s safer to abuse prescription drugs than illegal drugs and 40% don’t find using heroin inherently risky. The perception of these drugs may have relaxed over the years because of the language found in social media, music and movies. Because drug use appears to be commonplace among peers, celebrities and at social events, there may be an impression that drug use is not as bad as everybody thinks.

Method of Use

The chances a teen gets hooked on a substance increases dramatically depending on how the drug is administered. Smoking or injecting a drug into a vein sends the chemicals into the brain within seconds, producing a strong high. The euphoria wears off quickly in both of these instances, however, influencing the user to consume the drug again to get back to that high. This repeated use of the drug makes these two methods of administration greatly increase the drug’s addictive potential.

Does My Teen Need Addiction Treatment?

If you are concerned that your child may be abusing substances, don’t wait to find help. It’s better to be overly cautious than to look back on this time later and wish you had acted when the signs began. Start by reaching out to an addiction specialist, such as those on our team at TeenRehabCenter.org. Our help is private, professional and free — we can guide you in your efforts to find out what’s going on with your child.

Though no parent wants to discover that their child has a substance addiction, many parents get this devastating news each day. If you find yourself in this situation, now is the time to act. It’s crucial that you remain involved throughout the process of recovery, and ensure that your child has everything they need to get better. We at TeenRehabCenter.org exist to help guide your family towards the path of recovery. Drop us a line or give us a call if you have any questions about finding treatment, the costs associated with recovery care, or if you simply want to talk about what is happening. Don’t wait for the problem to worsen — get in touch today.

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