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.

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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