Why Teenagers and Young Adults Are Especially Prone to Addiction

Many psychiatrists regard addiction as a complicated "biopsychosocial" phenomenon marked by genetic, developmental, behavioral, social, and environmental factors. When it comes to the addiction risk for adolescents, developmental factors play a crucial role.

“The teenage brain is not there all the way,” neurologist Frances Jensen explained in an NPR interview in 2016. “It takes often into your early 20s and possibly late-20s and maybe even beyond for the brain to fully mature to adult levels.”

The part of the brain that isn’t fully developed is the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive decision-making. This explains why teenagers can make so many bad judgment calls despite being aware of the possible consequences. They simply assess the risks differently from an adult with a fully developed brain.

“As teens we are often not oblivious to the negative consequences of our actions,” writes Daniel Siegel in Brainstorm. “Instead, even though the negative consequences—the cons—are fully known, we place more emphasis on the potential positive aspects—the PROS—of an experience: the thrill, the shared experience, the fun, the excitement of breaking the rules.”

As British neurologist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out, adolescents are particularly risk-prone when they are in the company of their peers.

While lacking fully developed impulse control, the adolescent brain is primed for learning. And addiction can be seen as a learned behavior. In fact, addiction journalist Maia Szalavitz regards addiction primarily as a learning disorder.

“The highest risk period is adolescence, when the brain is physiologically prepared for deep learning and when, psychologically, the skills necessary to cope with adult emotions and experience are still nascent.” (Unbroken Brain)

Young people most at risk share certain characteristics, writes Szalavitz. They are often impulsive thrill seekers, sad and inhibited persons prone to attempts at self-medicating painful emotions, and a hybrid type who both fears and seeks novelty.

Dr. Jensen agrees that addiction involves a form of learning. “Just like learning a fact is more efficient, sadly, addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain. That is an important fact for an adolescent to know about themselves - that they can get addicted faster.”

The reward system of the adolescent brain learns to love the euphoria produced by addictive substances much easier than the mature brain. Effective addiction treatment needs to address this feature of the developing brain.

Decision Point Center has historically excelled at residential treatment for young adults. We offers a special program geared toward the needs of 18-34 year-old adults. We focus on the needs of this younger adult population, adapt our treatment protocols to this age group, and believe that there is benefit to maintaining a community of people of similar life experience.