Are teenagers more at risk of developing addictions over adults?

Are teenagers more at risk of developing addictions over adults

When attempting to understand drug addiction, drug abuse or behavioral addiction -it may be pertinent to explore the many ways in which our brain chemistry works, particularly when analyzing the teenage brain versus the adult brain.



Researchers have identified several critical variances between teens and adults when it comes to addiction.

The human brain

The human brain

When comparing the brain’s response to food reward in teenage and adult rats, researchers discovered marked differences in the brains of teens compared to adults – some of the findings suggest that teenagers are more at risk of developing mental health problems such as:

Making decisions

Decision making

Specific brain regions are responsible for making decisions and are to blame for the lack of self-control and risky behaviors in young people.

Researchers explain that the part of the brain that is critical in habit formation and planning our actions gets directly tapped by reward in adolescents.

All this suggests that receiving a reward could have a much stronger influence over what a teen will do next, the kind of decisions they make, as well as forming habits in young people.

This particular study was performed on rats, but teenagers within other animal species exhibited the same impulsive behaviors (such as risk-taking) as human adolescents, suggesting the results will be the same for humans.

Stressful early life experiences

Stressful early life experiences

Researchers explain that the brains of teens and young people are much more susceptible to stress than the adult brain.

A teen’s brain is also more vulnerable to mental illness and addiction, such as the regular use of marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs, all of which get influenced by the different brain chemistry.

Negative Consequences

Negative consequences

Trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) also contribute to the development of frequent drug use and substance abuse in young people, explains Robert Anda, co-principal investigator of adverse childhood experiences study.

Anda further commented, saying: ”ACE’s have created a public health disaster.”

Risk factors

Risk factors

Some of the risk factors for drug abuse and drug addiction in children and teens include:

  • Parental divorce
  • Household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence
  • Growing up with family members who have substance use disorders or other mental illness
  • A lack of parental supervision
  • Physical, sexual or mental abuse

A teens brain

When conducting their study on rats, researchers found that when presented with a specific sound, the rats would stick their noses in a hole and by doing this, they would get rewarded with a food pellet.

Probes were placed in each rat’s brain to monitor the neurons in two specific brain regions; the dorsal striatum and the nucleus accumbens. The rats got monitored as they performed each task.

The researchers concluded that the main difference between teen and adult rats took place in the dorsal striatum; this is where more activity occurred for teen rats about to get a food pellet.

The dorsal striatum gets stimulated by the reward signals from the nucleus accumbens and is responsible for habit-forming, all of which disciplines the memory into thinking: ”If I put my nose into this hole, I get a delicious treat, and that feels good.”

Teens - the vulnerable group

Teens; the vulnerable group

The literature also explained that brain differences could get expressed through risk-taking and impulsivity habits in most teens.

Since children’s brains are more susceptible to the events occurring in their environment, they tend to get drawn to rewarding behaviour, making teens much more prone to addictions such as drug use, substance use disorders and behavioral addictions.

Behavioral addiction

The exact biological factors that get applied to substance use addictions also get applied to behavioral addictions such as gaming and internet porn, especially for adolescents in their teen years.

Gaming addiction and COVID-19

Gaming Addiction and COVID-19

Studies conducted by Birkbeck, Southwest University, University of California, and Nottingham Trent reported that gaming addiction, also known as Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), noted a dramatic rise among adolescents and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings showed that the severity of gaming disorders was at an all-time high among teens during the lockdown. 

Pre-pandemic levels of depression and anxiety symptoms also predicted an increase in video game use and gaming addiction during the pandemic period.

Higher risk

Dr Halley Pontes from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology explains that although the study illustrates the severity of internet gaming disorders during COVID-19, the level of gaming disorders in adolescents and teens were still prevalent pre-pandemic.

Pontes also said that the rise of behavioral addictions (such as gaming disorders) could very well be a coping mechanism that people adopt for pandemic-related stress. 

Therefore, teenagers and adolescents may select negative coping strategies leading to the development of IGD.

Some of the literature stated that children would likely benefit from stricter parental supervision to regulate the use of video games to prevent the risk of them getting addicted.

Treatment and recovery

Teenagers and adolescents have different treatment needs compared to older substance abusers.

In addition to withdrawal and treating the addiction, most people in their teens may need help with education, family life, co-occurring mental health conditions, and more.

Experts explain that teenagers get expected to become experimental once they reach a certain age since the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions are not yet fully developed. 

The result is often a lack of impulse control, willpower and the adoption of risky behaviors.


Statistics from The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows the prevalence of teenage substance abuse by senior year of high school: 58.5% engaged in alcohol abuse, while at the same time, 47 % of teens used illicit drugs.

Research-based treatment models for teens

Research-based treatment models have been scientifically tested within treatment facilities, combining scientific evidence and knowledge to create comprehensive treatment plans for patients.

Fortunately, the prognosis for teens with addictions such as drug use, substance use disorders (and alcohol or other drugs) is much brighter than adults.

All this is because teens are less likely to experience withdrawal symptoms; they also have less difficulty stopping the use of a particular substance (or behavior), all of which make the recovery outcomes for teenage addiction much more positive.


There are several valuable treatments available to young people who enter teen rehab to combat addiction. They include:

#1. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): a therapeutic model that focuses on changing destructive behaviors (such as addiction) by modifying one’s emotions, thoughts and perceptions. CBT aims to develop better coping mechanisms for the future.

#2. Motivational interviewing (MI): this approach helps young people to recognize the need for change.

Since teenagers and adolescents often struggle with a sense of identity, MI helps young people to accept themselves and learn that their feelings are valid, all of which gives them the tools to modify any unhelpful behaviors and thoughts.

The MI method is very useful in gaining the motivation needed to stop risky and self-harming behaviors.

#3. Active learning: involves a series of experiential therapies, including music, art, ropes course, and equine therapy.

#4. Responsibility practice: This type of therapy involves taking on responsibilities such as caring for equine horses.

Frontyard - Centre For Health and Healing

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