Hard Evidence: Is the teenage brain wired for addiction?

The younger you are when you have your first alcoholic drink, the more likely you are to develop problems later on in life.

As a nation, we are drinking much more than we used to, which is partly attributable to alcohol being cheaper and more available than ever. Many British teenagers get into the habit early, although recent trends suggest this situation is improving (alcohol consumption among teenagers is slightly lower than it was ten years ago).

Nonetheless, drinking alcohol during adolescence is not a good idea, because the younger you are when you have your first alcoholic drink, the more likely you are to develop problems later on in life. The same is true for cigarette smoking and the use of illicit drugs such as cannabis and cocaine.

Rates of teenage drinking are dropping. NatCen

 

Arrested development

Why are adolescents particularly vulnerable to addiction? A large part of the answer comes from our understanding of the neurobiology of brain development during adolescence. The brain does not reach maturity until fairly late in life, with new connections between brain cells being formed right up until people are in their mid-20s.

Importantly, the brain does not mature at a uniform rate. The more primitive regions of the brain, including the reward system and other areas of the subcortex such as those parts that process emotions, reach maturity relatively early (when people are in their early teens).

The prefrontal cortex is a late bloomer. National Institute of Health

The more “advanced” parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, are not fully developed until much later. In behavioural terms this means adolescents are particularly sensitive to their emotions and to things that are novel and motivationally appealing, but they are relatively unable to control their behaviour and plan for the future.

Taking risks

My research suggests this can explain why some adolescents drink more than others: teenagers who were relatively poor at exerting self-control, or who took more risks on a computer test of risk-taking, were more likely to drink heavily in the future.

This creates perfect conditions for vulnerability to addiction during adolescence, because the motivational “pull” of alcohol and other drugs is very strong, whereas the ability to control behaviour is relatively weak. Many scientists think if adolescents do drink a lot, and if they do it frequently, then this might cause long-lasting changes in the way that the brain is organised, which can make it very difficult to stop drinking.

We certainly see changes in the brains of people with alcohol problems (compared to people without problems), but it can be difficult to work out if alcohol caused those brain changes, or if those people had slightly different brains before they started drinking, and these subtle differences may have led them to start drinking in the first place.

Starting early carries greater risk. NatCen

 

Addiction and behaviour

In principle, adolescent brains could be vulnerable to “behavioural” addictions as well as alcohol and drug addiction, for exactly the same reason. Very few behavioural addictions are officially recognised by psychiatrists and psychologists at the moment (gambling addiction is the only exception).

The Channel 4 documentary Porn on the Brain shown this week asked whether pornography is addictive, and if adolescents could be getting hooked. As shown in the programme, it certainly seems to be the case that a minority of adolescents who use pornography exhibit some of the characteristic features of addiction, such as feeling unable to control their use of porn, and loss of interest in other activities.

Their patterns of brain activity when viewing porn seem to be similar to those seen in people with alcohol and drug addictions when they look at pictures of alcohol and other drugs. It remains to be seen whether addiction to porn will eventually be recognised as a psychological disorder, but it is clear that it can create problems for some adolescents and young adults who use it.

What can be done? Although it’s obvious, parents should do what they can to prevent their children from experimenting with alcohol, smoking and other drugs for as long as possible. The same applies to other things that might eventually be considered “addictive”. School-based prevention programmes can also be successful, including a recent program that is tailored to different personality types and has shown some promise at reducing alcohol consumption in teenagers.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

Matt Field receives funding from the Medical Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Wellcome Trust, British Academy and Alcohol Research UK. He is affiliated with the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Teenages making a toast in a pub. Photo: Getty

Matt Field is Professor of Experimental Addiction Research at the University of Liverpool.

Maggie Goldenberger
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Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

 



Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.