What do you picture when you think of teen drug abuse? Is it parties at the home of an out-of-town parent, or sneaking drinks from the family liquor cabinet, or hiding in a bedroom with a “no parents allowed” sign on the door while slipping deeper and deeper into addiction? The fact is all of these are models of adolescent use, and a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology shows a common denominator: when a teen’s social life turns south, drug abuse can follow. The opposite is also true, that drug abuse itself can destroy a teen’s otherwise successful social life.
In many cases a socially awkward teen uses drugs in the mistaken hope that substances can fill the hole left by an unfulfilling social life. Unfortunately, this is true for many teens dissatisfied with their social group or lack thereof. They find acceptance in the group of kids using drugs.
Conversely, there are many teens who enjoy a healthy social life, but derail when they begin using. These teens often turn to drug use to feel better about something in their lives, such as dealing with anxiety, depression, grief, etc. Typically, this strategy only makes a teen feel worse, which leads to ever-increasing drug use. Like the above group these teens will eventually gravitate towards others that are using, leaving them in a social group that creates now further stress and disappointment compared to their previous group.
The study starts by pointing out that animals from mice to humans define themselves by social interactions – good social interactions reinforce our sense of self-worth and bad social interaction undermine this sense of self-worth. So we seek out positive social interactions: mice will choose the arm of a maze that lets them interact with a playful rather than drugged peer and the authors point out that teenagers’ “social play” helps them form opinions about themselves.
Drugs change teens’ desire and ability to be social up to a certain point and depending upon the drug of abuse. Opiods and alcohol make teens more social and cannabinoids and stimulants make teens less social.
First, all flavors of disruptive behavior disorders, including anti-social personality disorder, conduct disorder and oppositional-defiant disorder, go hand-in-hand with addiction. All of these disorders can decrease confidence and the ability to assess social cues. Subsequently, children and teens who struggle these disorders (and the disorder’s affect on the ways they relate to others) are more than twice as likely as their peers to develop substance abuse problems, and tend to start earlier and use more aggressively.
Social isolation is also a major risk factor for teen drug abuse. In fact, the authors write that isolation “changes the neural substrate of reward and motivation.” The brain of a socially isolated teen measures risk and reward differently than a social teen, making isolated teens more sensitive to the rewards of drugs. The researchers even show that socialization and drugs work on the same pathways within the brain: drugs are literally a way to attempt to get the neurobiological feeling of social connection.
But not all socialization is good. The authors put it this way: “Social insults in early life increase later drug taking.” So be careful when pushing an isolated teen into socialization: healthy socialization may be one of the most protective factors against teen drug use, but negative socialization (i.e. being bullied or socializing with a drug-using peer) is a major risk factor.
Here are the takeaways: If you are a teen, explore what motivates your drug use – substances are no substitute for social connection. If you’re the parent of an experimenting teen, know that isolation and negative social interactions may be your biggest enemies. But also know that encouraging or designing positive social experiences for your teen is one of the best ways to protect against drug abuse.