Addictions in adolescents, a great problem

The problem must be understood from a broad perspective. The vast majority of adults who are drug addicts, gamblers or alcoholics, among other addictions, started the habit at an early age, stimulated by the circumstances and models of their family and social environment. 

For this reason, the most well-known addictions in adolescents should be seen as the corollary of intra-family structural problems and the social context. The shortcomings in the training and learning of children, the lack of adequate models, regarding civic, moral and ethical values, promote a favorable environment for the development of unhealthy behaviors and habits from adolescence.

In this sense, the problem should be studied and attacked from its origin, understanding that adolescents are victims, in order to establish preventive and health policies, consistent with reality.

What is it about?

Addiction occurs when the person loses the will and is at the mercy of consuming any type of drug or performing any activity repeatedly, even when it causes mental and physical damage, and affects their social environment. Addictive behavior is supported by the following observations:

  • The pre-eminence that the activity acquires in the life of the subject, dominating their feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
  • The resistance or tolerance to the addictive object, which each time requires increasing to obtain the preliminary effects.
  • The withdrawal syndrome appears when the addictive object is abandoned for a time. People become emotionally unstable and undergo various physical reactions.
  • The mood of the person undergoes alterations in front of his human environment.
  • Interpersonal conflicts and with oneself appear, becoming isolation from the family nucleus, changes of interests and hobbies. Depending on the type of addiction, they vary in mode and situation.
  • Relapse usually occurs in patients who are undergoing treatment and who have decided to quit the addiction. It is understood that treatment is different depending on the type of addiction and, in extreme cases, therapy and / or withdrawal can take years, which are not exempt from relapses.

According to the World Health Organization , year after year the number of adolescents who drink alcoholic beverages and smoke tobacco increases worldwide. The figures show that smoking constitutes a “global epidemic”, being responsible for millions of deaths annually.

For its part, alcohol intake is responsible for dozens of pathologies and diseases, including irreversible damage to the fetus in pregnant adolescents and cardiovascular disorders, liver damage and neurological disorders, including dependence.

As is common in addictions, alcohol also affects the family environment due to its links with extra and intra-family violence and traffic accidents. In addition, alcoholism leads to socioeconomic conflicts.

Because it is relatively easy for adolescents to consume alcoholic beverages, the percentage skyrockets compared to other drugs that are illicit. The Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission has indicated that adolescents in the region drink alcohol frequently and at ages prohibited by law.

Drug addiction and alcoholism are some of the most harmful toxic substances, because they affect physical and mental health, which can lead to death. However, in recent decades other types of non-toxic addictions have been detected among adolescents, such as those related to the exacerbated use of new technologies, smartphones and, particularly, of the most popular social networks.

Screen addiction

As already announced, the term addiction not only applies to dependence on toxic and hallucinogenic substances, but also to a new type of behavior disorder, which is identified with the uncontrolled use of digital media and devices.

In these times, information and communication technologies (ICT) have transformed interpersonal relationships and dialectics with machines, which previously was reduced to the manual operation of electronic and mechanical systems.

Now, the new digital media respond with added value, producing a behavioral, cognitive and emotional impact on their users. In some situations, which afflict everyone, but is more worrying in adolescents, cyberspace or the Internet and technological practices have gone from being a means to an end in itself.

This phenomenon becomes tangible in the exacerbated desire to buy the latest digital device, which allows multiple applications and telepresence through social networks, which become the central tool for personal interaction, recreation and pleasure, after which personal conflicts are covered up .

Adolescents can be trapped by certain digital social networks, because they create a world parallel to their reality, with which they cannot reconcile. Your personal identity on the Internet does not have to be your own. Thus, the adolescent creates an alter-ego with which he tries to influence his group and gain status.

With this, another phenomenon occurs, the adolescent takes distance from his physical environment (his real environment), in a kind of invented re-socialization, but that works perfectly, with attention to his frame of emotional needs.

Paradoxically, the openness to new knowledge and the expressive freedom that the communication and information network supposes, confines certain young people to a kind of addiction that infringes their freedom, by reducing their consciousness and confining the perspectives of their intellectual potentialities.

The psychological mechanism for this type of dependence to occur is the same as that of psychotropics or alcohol. This type of addiction also involves loss of control, overt dependency, and eventually withdrawal episodes.

And it is that all these addictive manifestations are dominated primarily by the so-called positive reinforcers (the behavior itself produces pleasure). However, over time these behaviors are controlled by negative reinforcers (the calming of emotional tensions).

In this sense, there is a fundamental difference between the need to use the mobile phone or connect to the Internet for communication, work, academic, training purposes or the pleasure of the behavior itself and the relief of emotional discomfort , which can be loneliness or anger, nervous disturbance, or stress.

The so-called cyber addiction occurs when the infant stops sharing with their peers and spends hours in front of the screen with video games. The adolescent abandons his real life and gets hooked on the mobile phone, lowers his school performance and loses track of time. Daily life is drastically affected.

What are the causes of addiction in adolescents?

There are various causes, not only those related to the context, but also those related to the adolescent’s stage of psychophysical development , which makes them more vulnerable.

If culture is understood in a broad sense, there are non-specific cultural pressures between families, communities and social groups, whose representatives, parents and citizens, believe that the consumption and experimentation with soft drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, by their children adolescents, are inherent to their stage of life.

The use of soft drugs in an experimental way at an early age can escalate over time to hard drugs and to social, functional and, finally, dysfunctional consumption, when the individual totally loses their intellectual, social and productive capacities. 

Soft drugs (marijuana, hashish) and alcoholic beverages are consumed openly by adult groups of different ages , so the transition to adolescents is much easier. Even the global trend towards the decriminalization of personal consumption of soft drugs for recreational purposes seems unstoppable.

According to the prevailing data, it is assumed that soft drugs do not produce physical dependence, but psychic dependence, so they are less toxic and the dependence that the young person experiences is less rapid. Under this premise, the consumer can interrupt their intake without resulting in serious physiological alterations.

In any case, drug use is a public health problem in countries with different standards of living (for example, Brazil and the United States of America), where soft drugs are only the springboard for the use of hard drugs, such as cocaine, opioids, alcohol, and amphetamines. These drugs cause immediate physical dependence and are highly toxic.

In short, addictions in adolescents respond to multiple factors. Starting from the previous lines, the following could be considered:

  1. The need to transgress rigid values.
  2. The search for an individual or social profile , in order to join the group, community, or distinguish themselves. The interest in belonging to the group he frequents, in feeling part of it, is a constant in adolescent behavior.
  3. In adolescents, the first contact with toxic substances and addictive objects can be related to pleasant and recreational experiences and moments. 

In the case of addictions due to alcohol intake and tobacco consumption, the most common causes among adolescents are usually related to celebrations, youth parties, etc. Likewise, young people are carried away by the moment; they even ingest the first dose of alcohol with the permission of their parents.

4. If there is no coercion, deception or submission by force, first-time use is voluntary and is due to poor judgment.

The adolescent’s attitude is often erratic about his own wishes and ideas. If you do not have a family behind you that you feel identified with, you can make decisions that are contrary to your well-being.

Adolescence represents a stage of deep conflicts between the needs of the definitive improvement of childhood and the demands of the social environment.

  • The first contact with the addictive object does not have to lead to addiction; However, when adolescents are part of dysfunctional families, suffer bullying or live in a favorable environment, in contact with adults with some type of addiction, they are more vulnerable to experiencing addictions. 

If the parents and guardians are smokers, it is difficult for children to escape from being passive and then active smokers. In the case of alcohol intake, unless there is early intervention from the family nucleus, the children of alcoholics are highly vulnerable to addictions.

In general, biogenetic variables come into play in many cases, as with cancer and other diseases. Young people are already genetically conditioned.

General symptoms of addiction in adolescents

Here are some of the most characteristic signs or symptoms of addictions.

  1. Of a physical nature : adolescents show signs of fatigue, insomnia, recurrent collateral diseases (pain, obesity or extreme thinness, etc.), reddish pigmentation in the eyes and loss of brightness, and recurrent coughing attacks.
  2. Of a sensitive nature : behavioral disturbances (irresponsible acts) and humor. Self-esteem is compromised and the young person may experience depression and social isolation. The boy or girl abandons their regular recreational activities.
  3. Within the family : the young man isolates himself in his room and usually gets lost for many hours, without giving explanations to his relatives.
  4. In the school environment : changes in school performance and lack of interest in tasks and punctuality are evident, in addition to class attendance.
  5. Context: young people are involved with groups of criminals and drug users, which affects their dress and appearance habits.
  6. The gradual loss of the quality of life of the adolescent is evident . Young people lose control of their life, after the development of addictive behavior.
  7. Research on the subject indicates that neurochemical alterations occur in addicted people.

Symptoms due to dependence on digital media

Regarding addiction to the Internet or social networks, excessive use of these means leads to loss of control . When the young person, due to various circumstances, is forced to detach himself from his digital device, withdrawal symptoms appear: the adolescent experiences depression, becomes even more irritable and suffers from episodes of anxiety.

As with drugs and toxic substances, the excessive use of social networks generates tolerance; the use of devices and networks is increasing, altering the normal dynamics of adolescent life .

The screen becomes the center of the young person’s life, reducing their physical activity to a minimum and preventing them from carrying out other activities .

The adolescent’s behavior reveals the anxiety and desire to come back to life on the networks, which transform their unpleasant reality. This personality breakdown is reminiscent of what happens in drug addicts, such as cocaine and alcohol.

What to do or how to act in the face of adolescent addictions? 

The closeness of parents and representatives with respect to their minor children and adolescents, in constituted and more or less functional families, is essential to prevent them from being involved in situations contrary to their well-being.

There must be fluent communication with the children and take an interest in all their school and extracurricular activities. In this way, possible variables that act in favor of harmful behaviors can be detected in time.

In case of suspicion of addiction, whatever it may be, you must corroborate it by your own means or turn to a specialist . For example, there are addiction aid associations or family specialists who can guide you in this regard. When the presence of drugs in your home is already a certainty or your adolescent has some kind of dependency, you should seek help.

Addictions are treated through psychotherapy and / or medication . It all depends on the severity and type of addiction. Who is licensed to determine the best treatment is the psychologist or psychiatrist. Therefore, the first thing is to seek the advice of an addiction expert. Also, you can consult the adolescent’s doctor or an association for the help of young drug addicts.

Steps to follow:

  1. Communicate assertively : it is difficult for the addict to recognize at once that he has a serious problem that is affecting his life. For this reason, communication work should include those closest to the adolescent, including friends with whom they feel comfortable. For any treatment it is essential that the patient recognize his addiction. Addicted people in general tend to deny the existence of a problem, therefore, the intervention of those close to them is essential. 
  2. Unconditional support: in an ideal situation, parents and guardians are called upon to face the situation; But it’s not always like this. The fundamental thing is that there is a real interest and that the patient feels effectively accompanied.
  3. Do not give in to blackmail : Teen addicts will surely resort to emotional blackmail to continue with the addiction. Under a protection and care scheme, parents must be clear that these behaviors are part of the addiction.
  4. Separation is sometimes advisable : in extreme cases, the adolescent must be confined to a detoxification and rehabilitation center. The addiction should not permeate the entire family, least of all other minor children. This decision must always have the endorsement of the specialists.
  5. Recovery process : after paving the way for the recognition by the patient of the seriousness of his addiction and his manifest interest in recovering, he proceeds to the development of the recovery program.

In this sense, individual and group (family) therapies plus pharmacological support are carried out in the patient, when necessary. Psychotherapies address the <relearning-cessation> dimension of the patient and pharmacological treatments address the compromised neurological, physiological and functional aspects.

In the case of dependence on opiates, buprenorphine is being used showing more effectiveness than methadone. The drug blocks the effects of opioids and has few side effects.

Another pharmacological alternative is aimed at the use of vaccines against drugs, such as heroin, methamphetamine, nicotine and cocaine, which have the ability to develop antibodies in the body, which cancel the pleasant effect of the same.

This group of drugs constitutes one of the preventive and recovery measures for addicts with the greatest resonance and possibilities. Neurological research points to deep brain stimulation . That is, therapy targets the accumbens , subthalamic centers , the dorsal striatum, and the medial prefrontal cortex. With this, it seeks to eliminate root addictions.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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