The Adolescent Brain, Drugs and Media

We recently finished a drug education series at a local middle school, and (pun intended) the kids are hooked on the information. The lesson covers in broad strokes topics having to do with the development of the adolescent brain, levels of identity, drugs and media, and responsible decision-making. The course is designed to work with 6th-8th graders, yet personal experience and research show 8th grade as the critical time this information needs to be shared, learned and integrated. As the national drug use watch organization Monitoring the Future says, “Often 8th grade substance use is a bellwether, and year-to-year changes that are unique to 8th grade can signify an emerging increase or decrease in substance use at later ages…”

Our experience in the classroom shows higher levels of engagement when talking about brain development and drugs than almost any other subject. Contextualizing information with group activity, helpful visual aids, anecdote sharing and impactful statistics allow for digestion of complex concepts. Students demonstrate insatiable appetites to hear about drugs from someone that isn’t telling them “just say no” or explaining how drugs are “bad” the way a parent talks to a toddler.

The success of a drug education program in the classroom is merely one step in a multi-phase abuse prevention strategy. According to the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Education, parenting practices are extremely important in prevention of drug use and abuse among teens. According to the website, teens between the ages of 16-17 show the highest rates of drug use initiation (see graphic), meaning prevention measures need to take place well before this critical time. Couple the fact teens are actively developing their prefrontal cortex from ages 12 to their mid-20’s, and we can begin to understand why risky impulsive behaviors need to be reigned in before unhealthy addictions can set in.


A question remains how addiction can accurately be addressed in our media and drug-filled society. A recent article that addresses the root cause of drug addiction compares addiction to a form of memory, where we are actually “bonding” to an experience we have with a substance, rather than the substance itself. The article furthers this statement by stating the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but human connection.

As we continue to address the needs of children in middle school, sharing in real-life terms the perceived rewards and hidden risks of drugs and media is a must. Parent norm creation, a necessary piece in the larger puzzle, is also possible via community meetings and before and after school presentations. After all, if we can learn that human connection is the opposite of addiction, wouldn’t we all want to be a part of the communal conversation?

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