Monthly Archives: April 2015

  • Social Media and Underage Drinking

    According to a study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children and teens who spend time on social networking sites are three times more likely to drink alcohol than those who don’t. This connection is not obvious on its face. However, the popularity of social media provides the alcohol industry a widening reach to market its products. And that reach extends to a large number of youth. Regardless of intentions, enticing promotion tactics capture the interest of children and teens, and this type of advertising, coupled with the ubiquity of social media, creates a formula that promotes alcohol use.

    Alcohol brand fan pages on social media sites are public forums for all to see. It is common to find posts of photos displaying colorful mixed drinks or bottles of beer frosted on ice. Fans can post comments and pictures in response to the alcohol advertisiAnchorng. Children and teens need only to like a fan page to see these photos and comments in their newsfeed. But children and teens may also be exposed to advertising secondhand if one of their friends becomes a fan of a brand alcohol page and shares photos from that page.

    The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Johns Hopkins University reports in a pamphlet that children misrepresent their ages to join social networking sites that have a minimum age requirement of 13. So the reality is children are gaining exposure to alcohol advertising at a very young age. CAMY further states “14 longitudinal scientific studies provide strong evidence that the amount of exposure to alcohol advertising influences whether young people start drinking or, if they already drink, how much they drink.”

    Though the percentage of teen drinkers has lowered slightly in a recent ten year period, there is no question underage drinking remains a problem. Project Know, an organization devoted to raising awareness of substance abuse through informative maps and graphs on their website, reports “since 2003, the nationwide prevalence of students who drank alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days hasn’t dropped below 34%.” That’s still a sizeable number to consider.

    Youth develop positive expectations of alcohol use when they are repeatedly exposed to the often glamorized and alluring alcohol advertisements and promotions. Correcting misperceptions that children and teens may have about alcohol, as well as educating them as to the negative consequences of underage drinking, can effectively counter expectations that alcohol is the key to maturity, escape, and social success. Well informed youth are better able to make responsible decisions, and youth who are ready to make responsible decisions are better equipped to resist media influences. We might not be able to control the images placed before them, but children and teens equipped with the tools they need to recognize it is wiser not to engage in underage drinking will scroll on by the frosty beer.

  • Mendez Appears in SEEN Magazine

    The article, "Build Protection Against Risky Behavior," written by Charles E. Mendez III, appears in the Spring Issue of SEEN Magazine. Mendez writes, "Adolescents equipped with higher social emotional competencies are more likely to value themselves and their opportunities. It is essential, then, for us to teach adolescents from an early age to recognize and apply their capacity to set and fulfill reachable goals. The willingness to stake a claim in one’s own future provides something to lose, something to protect." Read the full article here.

  • The Effects of Nicotine on the Teen Brain

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study that showed adolescent e-cigarette use tripled between 2013 and 2014.  This new trend means we need to look not just at the negative health effects of smoking but at the overall negative health effects of nicotine on the developing teenage brain.

    As with alcohol and other substances, nicotine has an especially harmful effect on the developing teenage brain. Research has shown that nicotine directly impacts monoamine neurotransmitters and the limbic system, parts of the brain necessary for emotion regulation, behavior, and memory. Neural connections are still being determined in adolescence, so the development of these areas could be compromised by the use of nicotine products.

    Monoamine transmitters are made up of transmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all of which are integral to mood. In the journal article, “The Dynamic Effects of Nicotine on the Developing Brain,” Dwyer and McQuown write “findings suggest that adolescent nicotine exposure may induce maladaptive learning in emotional contexts, which may lead to life-long mood disorders.” An imbalance of any of the monoamine transmitters can result in not only mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, but even schizophrenia.

    Dwyer and McQuown also report “nicotine may play a causal role in the persistence of impulsivity during and beyond adolescence.” Adolescence already marks a stage fraught with impulsivity, and using nicotine products just reinforces that circuitry in the brain. And these neural pathways created in adolescence are carried into adulthood.

    Furthermore, studies show that teens are more sensitive than adults to nicotine’s addictive properties, because the reward center of their brain develops at a quicker rate than the prefrontal cortex. In other words, teens are more likely to take a risk and seek reward, which means they are also more susceptible to negative peer influence.

    It is essential that we correct any misperceptions of harm teens have about e-cigarettes by educating them as to the negative health consequences of nicotine and by countering e-cigarette manufacturers’ purposeful targeting of youth. Candy flavored nicotine products are no less harmful than cigarettes, contrary to what teens may think. Well informed teens are better equipped to make responsible decisions, resist negative peer influence, and stay free from nicotine addiction in all of its forms.

  • Social Emotional Learning and Mindfulness

    The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley recently highlighted the essential connection between social emotional learning and mindfulness. The center states that by helping children “become aware of and then embody the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, students are better able to regulate their emotions, which then impacts things such as their behavior, stress levels, relationships, and ability to focus.” Practicing social emotional skills in tangible ways helps children become more aware of themselves and others.

    Children who take time to think before acting are more likely to make responsible decisions and manage their emotions. Christopher Willard, Tufts psychologist and author of Child’s Mind: Mindfulness Practices to Help Our Children Be More Focused, Calm and Relaxed, names several ways in which children may practice mindfulness. Taking deep breaths is one way for children to pause and focus. Willard states that “exercises such as breathing consciously or taking a minute or two to really listen can help a child regulate such feelings as anger and anxiety.”

    Children can further regulate emotions by learning to identify their own body language as well as the body language of others. A racing heart can be the effect of nervousness or excitement, and a frown can be a sign of sadness or frustration. These physical signs can be cues for children to learn the moments when they may need to pause and relax. Children who are able to recognize these cues in themselves and others are also able to mitigate potential conflict.

    Willard further emphasizes the meaningful results when children take a few moments to listen to and observe their surroundings. He encourages another tangible practice in which children “listen carefully for about a minute and then name five sounds he heard while being quiet.” In this way, children practice how to pause, reflect, and gain awareness of self and others.

    The Greater Good Science Center asserts that such “mindfulness practices connect students’ inner and outer experiences and help them see the congruence between the two.” Children who are able to stop to think, to pause and reflect, are better able to live with assurance in the moment and build happy and peaceful futures.

  • Spiked Heroin Leads to Rise in Fatalities

    Prescription opioid abuse has risen significantly over the past decade, leading the federal government and many state governments to instate more stringent laws to reduce access to these drugs.  These efforts have been successful in both reducing illicit availability and driving up costs.  As a result, addicted users turn to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, heroin use among young adults aged 18-25 has almost doubled in a recent ten year period. Both heroin and prescription opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, producing an effect that diminishes perceptions of pain. These drugs also engage with the area of the brain that involves reward, which could be one cause for addiction.

    The biological transition from opioids to heroin is not much of a leap, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration “has found more heroin laced with fentanyl, which is typically used to treat severe pain in people with chronic illness.”  Heroin suppliers use this additive because it increases the heroin’s potency in an effort to keep street prices down and consumption up.  However, heroin laced with fentanyl is that much more lethal.

    According to The Wall Street Journal, the DEA administrator reports that drug “incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety.”  Indeed, it poses a significant risk to law enforcement officials who come into contact with it, because it can be unintentionally inhaled or absorbed through the skin during drug busts.

    Fentanyl is one of many prescription opioids that are abused, maybe particularly so because it can be prescribed in the form of a patch.  Users cut up the patches and place them under the tongue for a quicker and more intense effect.

    With the rise in prescription opioid abuse and heroin use, we are reminded of the crucial need to prevent the misuse of prescription medications. Drug manufacturers are working to develop analgesics that are not opioids and ultimately less likely to be abused.  Additionally, as prevention educators, we can educate children as to the safe use of prescription medications and correct children’s misperceptions of harm surrounding inappropriate use of prescription medications.  Children who learn from an early age to take a responsible approach toward the safe use and handling of prescription medications are less likely to abuse them, and so they are less likely to develop a dependence on opioids that could ultimately lead to a possible heroin addiction. Drug awareness education coupled with the tools children need to make responsible decisions and resist negative peer influence, all equip children with the resiliency they need to stay true to a drug-free life.

  • Human Bonding as a Preventive Factor

    Conventional wisdom suggests isolation rises out of addiction, but studies have shown that in fact addiction may be a result of social isolation.  Of course, there is a vicious cycle that then develops; isolation breeds addiction which breeds further isolation.

    Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander, conducted an experiment in the 1970s that has become known as the Rat Park experiment. Previous experiments revealed rats in isolation chose cocaine-laced water over plain water, so much so their addictions to the substance eventually lead to overdose and death. But Alexander wanted to test his theory which suggested rats would be less likely to become addicted to drugs in a social environment, so he created an engaging and social habitat.  His rats were offered both plain and cocaine-laced bottles of water. Surprisingly, the inhabitants of Rat Park shunned the cocaine-laced water. These social and happy rats did not feel the draw of the drug their isolated counterparts felt.

    Addiction psychologists assert that human beings have a deep desire to bond, and if they can’t connect with other people, they may turn to something to fill that void.  The trouble is the escape is only a temporary surrogate for the lack of human connection.  Using alcohol or other drugs to escape or turning to sugar for comfort or other forms of distraction betrays an addictive yearning to connect.  And so begins the journey to addiction, further isolating the person from the meaningful human bond they fundamentally need and miss.

    So what does this all mean for prevention? If isolation is likely to spawn addiction and a social environment fosters resilience, then it is essential that children learn how to develop and maintain healthy relationships from an early age.  Fundamental social emotional skills equip children with the ability to bond with positive peers in a meaningful way.  Effective communication and emotion management are key players on the road to building relationships.  With these social emotional competencies in place, children can successfully maintain their forged connections. And a social environment clearly acts as a preventive measure against risky behaviors.

    Let these studies shine a light on the necessity for us to give children the tools to build strong foundations. Children who connect with others in meaningful ways are happier, healthier, and ultimately more resilient. They in turn stay true to social lives free of drugs and violence.