These are common questions: If so many teens are using addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, what’s the big deal? Isn’t it normal to experiment like this? After all, teens will be teens — and a lot of parents had their own flings with smokes and drinks, so shouldn’t we just chill out and let our kids navigate the world of substances in much the same way we were expected to?
That sounds like a plan if you take your cues from industries selling addictive substances and are good with remaining in 20th-century mindsets and approaches to drug prevention and treatment.
Science of only the last decade is sounding serious alarms about adolescent drug use. In just the last five years, researchers have discovered more about adolescent brain development than the world ever has known. Unfortunately, the gap between what reputable science knows about adolescent substance use and what the general public believes about it has never been wider.
People profiting and otherwise benefiting from the sale of addictive substances want to keep it that way. The alcohol and tobacco industries maintain legions of lobbyists to influence public drug policies and spend billions of dollars each year on media to influence public opinion. Now, the marijuana industry is on the rise — fueled largely by legislative and popular votes that opened the doors to more mountains of misinformation.
“People are voting without the knowledge,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told a ballroom packed with hundreds of drug-prevention experts, treatment providers and concerned parents in February 2014. “And we have to counter investments in individuals wanting to change the culture and promote beliefs that marijuana is a safe drug.”
Yet it’s very hard to hear addiction scientists and world-recognized substance treatment experts like Dr. Volkow and all the peer-reviewed research studies published in prominent medical journals over the din of billion-dollar advertising and public relations campaigns launched by companies deriving most of their profits from addiction. They want us either stuck in outdated mindsets or embracing their latest clever — and often insidious — slogans and narratives because they fear what would happen if more of us understood brain development science of the 21st century and challenged ourselves and our communities to rethink public policies and social norms surrounding drug and alcohol use.
The latest science boils down to this: adolescent substance use is a very big deal — and a bigger deal than researchers previously thought. Parents do not have to accept it, and when they reject the messages of popular culture that so often ensnare youth, they should know they’ve got reputable science on their side.
We’re always interested in knowing how parents communicate with their children about the importance of brain health and avoiding drug use. Please share your thoughts about these things in the comments section below.