Risky teen behavior: A primer from scientists


Q and A with Kimberly Kirby, PhD, and David Festinger, PhD, Senior Scientists with the Treatment Research Institute

Q: What do we think about whether it's okay for kids to be drinking, or drinking/driving - and is it dangerous?

A: While it is true that many teens and young adults experiment with alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs during high school and college, it is very dangerous for parents and other adults to give them the message that this is okay. In this sense, the quick and clear reaction of the Lower Merion school officials is quite appropriate.

Alcohol, marijuana, other drug use is dangerous for several reasons. Most parents are probably aware of the dangers of having their child driving under the influence or traveling with an under-the-influence driver. Even if their child is not in a car with an impaired driver, they may be at risk simply leaving a party where significant alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use is occurring.

Fewer parents are probably aware of recent medical findings showing that an adolescent's brain is still undergoing critical development. Even the first experience with alcohol or drugs starts to alter the connections in the adolescent brain, altering motivational circuitry in ways that can initiate a path towards substance use problems and addiction. Adolescents are at a heightened risk for drug and alcohol abuse, compared to adults and this may be because their specific brain immaturities make them more readily affected by drugs and alcohol, which may lead to faster addiction, compared to adults. Of course every adolescent that experiments with drugs does not proceed to develop problem; however, while we can identify several factors that place some individuals at higher risk for developing addictions than others, we are still not able to predict with certainty which individuals will develop substance use problems and which will not. There is no way to know for sure that your child's experimentation is harmless.

Knowing that the adolescent brain is still developing may help parents to appreciate better why their adolescent sometimes makes decisions that are perplexing to adults. Also, psychological research has shown that teens are more likely to make risky decisions when in the presence of their peer group.

Of course videos, websites, and other social media depicting drug use as normal and "cool" adds to the risks. We live in an age of social media and instant electronic communication that makes very little behavior truly private. Therefore, children today have the risk of having their behavior publicly posted in ways that are difficult to control or erase, and which may surface at some point in the future in ways that could be damaging to their employment or academic aspirations.

Although the approval of peer groups has increased importance during adolescence, it is important for parents to know that they still have influence over their teens. Giving a clear message - that drinking and using drugs is not acceptable - is therefore important.

Also note: this chart from the Monitoring the Future study:

     Marijuana  Cigarettes
8th     16.4     18.4 percent who said they had tried
10th    34.5     30.4 percent who said they had tried
12th    45.5     40.0 percent who said they had tried

Finding: among students in 10th and 12th grades, more said they had tried marijuana than cigarettes.

One more note: a recent study jointly-commissioned by Students Against Destructive Decisions and the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company studied 2,300 11th and 12th graders.

It found 1) a growing percentage of teens who don't view driving under the influence of marijuana as that distracting; 2) that 19 percent of students reported having gotten behind the wheel after smoking pot; and 3) 13 percent reported driving while under the influence of alcohol.

Source: today's issue of Join Together for the report at:  http://www.drugfree.org/join-together/drugs/teens-driving-under-the-influence-of-marijuana

Q: Do we think it's okay for kids to be depicted on the Internet in the act of the above; is it dangerous?

A: At the Treatment Research Institute here in Philadelphia, Dr. David Festinger and his research team catalogued hundreds of YouTube videos, chat rooms, social networking venues, and other online sites that extol the virtues of drugs, provide information about how to use drugs "safely," and even teach kids how to manufacture and sell them. Although most of us are aware of the influence that friends, peers, television, and movies may have on our children's perceptions of drug and alcohol use, many people are not aware of the incredible prevalence of pro-drug use propaganda and misinformation available on the internet. A video that was created in our own back yard may have been the thing that got our attention, but the prevalence of these online drug threats is the issue that we should be most concerned about. Similar to strategies taken to safeguard our children against online predation, there are many ways to protect them from these pro-drug and alcohol use influences.

Q: What can parents do about it, if they see these depictions?

A: When parents become aware that their children have been exposed to video or other media depictions that glorify substance use, one thing they can do is use the opportunity to initiate a discussion about the use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs, and to clearly communicate their disapproval. These conversations work best when they truly are an interaction where the parent adopts a position of curiosity and listens to what the child has to say, rather than lecturing to the child.

Q: What can the institute offer parents to help out?

A: First, for parents who need tips with respect to internet usage, Dr. Festinger recommends the following guidelines:

* Monitor your child's internet use and make use of commercially available parent controls. Placing the computer in a central area of your home can make this easier.

 * Have a discussion with your child about the places they go online and on their online contacts. Stay calm and have a plan on how to react if you discover inappropriate use. Keep in mind that children are naturally curious, and there can be many reasons why they happen upon a particular site.

* Set limits on Internet use and availability,  depending on the age and maturity of the child. Have a formal or informal contract with your kids about proper use of the internet and make consequences for misuse clear. Be sure to follow through with those consequences when misuse occurs.

* Consider use of commercially available texting transcript software to monitor your child's text messages. Discuss internet use restrictions with the parents of the friends your child visits, to make sure that your child is not able to engage in inappropriate internet use while at their friends' homes.

Second, for parents who are concerned that their child may be experimenting with alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs, we offer the following tips and resources from TRI's Parents' Translational Research Center:

* Most parents are not fully aware of the extent to which their teen is using substances. Often the adolescent is using more frequently, and more substances, than the parent thinks.

* In collaboration with THE PARTNERSHIP AT DRUG-FREE.ORG, our scientists and others have helped to develop guidelines for parents on how to talk to their children. Parents access this help through:

* For parents who continue to be concerned about their children's substance use, we offer help through our Family Training Center. We offer parents free groups where they can come to learn more about adolescent substance use and talk with other parents who have concerns. We also can provide free one-on-one services to parents who qualify for a study and would like to learn how to interact with a child who is using alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. We can help parents locate treatment services for adolescents who need them. Finally, for parents who would like to receive services from us, but do not want to participate in a study, we may be able to provide services for payment.

Contact information:

The Family Training Program can reached at 267-765-2189 or at 1-877-iworry2

Treatment Research Institute
600 Public Ledger Building l
150 S. Independence Mall West
Philadelphia, PA 19106  215-399-0980

www.tresearch.org l bcatone@tresearch.org