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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“There will be an absolute meltdown in 2020” : what’s holding back the introduction of electronic voting?

The government's reluctance to implement electronic voting will affect our future, and in – the case of Brexit – may have already dramatically affected our past. 

Imagine, just for a second, that the situation was reversed. Imagine if, for a hundred years, we had scanned, swiped, and tapped our votes into a secure, fool-proof electronic system and someone waddled along and said, “Alright lads, how about we try pencil and paper?”. How about we desperately try to find a spare hour to shuffle to the village hall in the rain and scratch an “X” onto a scrap of paper with a stubby bit of lead, and then let a volunteer named Deidre count it at two am? What could possibly go wrong?

If you picture this scenario – posited by my colleague Anna – then it quickly becomes clear how ridiculous it is that the UK has not yet implemented electronic voting in any lasting way, shape, or form. Not only are we not on board with popping online to vote, we’re also reluctant to use technology when it comes to marking our ballots, authenticating voters’ identities, and counting votes. Despite the success of electronic voting in countries such as Brazil, Estonia, and India, the UK continues to reject reform. Why?

 “I think the problem is political at the moment,” says Mike Summers, the program manager at Smartmatic, an electronic voting company who have run three national elections in the Philippines, have a 15 year contract with Belgium, and have counted around 3.7 billion electronic votes in 12 years. “I think there is a fear that if you enfranchise groups of younger people, then you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to vote.”

We can, however, make a pretty good guess. Smartmatic’s own research shows that 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds would be more likely to vote if they could do so online and 55 per cent said they would have used online voting at the last general election. As Labour's vote share could have been boosted at the last election if only more young people had turned out to vote, this might make electronic voting an uninviting prospect for Theresa May.

“Prior to the last parliamentary election the Labour party were vehemently in favour of electronic voting,” says Summers. “Things are moving very slowly compared to other developing and developed nations so our reading of the situation is that it’s a largely political one.”

The consequences of this inaction are severe. Holding off on a voting system that provides greater accessibility to all compromises the very notion of democracy, but it also has potentially more immediate repercussions. “In 2020 everything is going to hit the proverbial fan we’re going to be a laughing stock,” says Summers.

The reason for this is because of the wide array of elections sheduled for 2020. Not only will there be a general election, there are also police and crime commissioner elections, the London Assembly and the London mayoral elections, and also local elections. “There is real concern that because of the complexity of this event there is going to be an absolute meltdown.”

Electronic voting would help prevent such a meltdown by ensuring, among other things, that voters couldn’t accidentally mark a first past the post ballot with a preferential voting system (or vice versa), that votes could be counted faster, and that overseas votes would not be lost in the post. The last is of particular importance as the government are now planning to scrap the 15-year rule that bans long-term expatriates from voting in UK elections.

“That’s a potential five million additional expats who will be eligible to vote,” says Summers, “How are you going to service them?” The answer to that is via the postal vote, and the limitations of this traditional method make the case for electronic voting even stronger.

“Postal voters authenticate themselves with a signature – mine is easily forgeable – and their date of birth,” says Summers. “The traditional methods are not secure. With online voting we can use facial biometrics to compare a person’s digital facial portrait – a selfie, if you like – with their ID, and we can verify there is a match.

“The next problem is security, and putting your ballot in an envelope is not secure. We have very, very strong application level cryptography. The moment a voter casts their ballot we encrypt it on the voting side and digitally sign it as a method of proving the integrity. Additionally, when postal voters put their vote in the post box they have no way of checking it was received or counted, so you have no verifiability. We have a number of tools that voters can use to verify their vote was received and was included in the final tally.”

Nowhere is the importance of the postal vote clearer than in the case of Brexit. “You could argue that the outcome would have been different,” says Summers. “Lots of expats voted by post and a lot of the votes didn’t come back before the close of the election count. We have an office in Amsterdam and one of the guys plays in a local rugby club in The Hague. There are ten Brits on that team and six of them received their postal vote after the close of the election. If you’re an expat living overseas then are you going to vote for or against Brexit? If those voters had voted then the outcome could have been completely different.”

Yet the benefits of accuracy, transparency, verifiability, and accessibility are easily side-lined by one bloodcurdling word. Hackers. If Hillary Clinton’s emails can become your bedtime reading, isn’t it possible – nay, probable – that elections will be hacked, falsified, and corrupted?

“The easiest election to hack is a paper election,” says Summers. “It is important to educate people on the difference between election information systems, which the DMC use, and voting systems. The protections of voting systems are above and beyond anything you will use in any other online application, including online banking and ecommerce solutions.”

As a representative of Smartmatic, Summers would say this, but they and other companies have created a wide variety of solutions which – even if imperfect – are vulnerable to fewer mistakes than Deidre in the village hall. Even if there are flaws, it seems important to iron these out now – before 2020 – to ensure the success of electronic voting in the future.

Although the House of Commons’ Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that the UK should adopt electronic voting by 2020, there is little evidence that steps are being taken towards this goal. “I’d love to turn around and say I think steps are being taken but there is a lack of willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings that we have in terms of UK elections,” says Summers. For now, then, the debate rages on. Should we stick to the tried-and-tested, or should we transform the electoral process forever? I know – let's vote on it. 

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