Adolescent Substance Abuse and Technology Abuse: Similar Dangers

Oct 14, 2011

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Would you drop your children off alone in the crack house district of Los Angeles? How would you feel about dropping them off at the famed Red Light District in Amsterdam, alone, and unsupervised? Every day unsupervised children inadvertently find their way to internet porn sites. The average age of a child’s first exposure is 11 years old (Family Safe Media, December 15, 2005).

As a Marriage and Family Therapist with chemical and sex addiction credentials, I often have parents make an appointment with me for their child. The child has hit the parent’s radar with falling grades or the parent has found evidence of substance abusing behaviors. Parents would like an assessment and help for how to handle these discoveries. When working with adolescents I have to rule out the possibility of substance abuse. As a part of my assessment I ask detailed questions about substances that help me to understand if we have an abuse or dependence problem: Have they have ever used a particular substance? If yes, when did they first begin using? How long have they used the substance? While a parent has concerns about the illegal substances, I too am concerned about these behaviors, but over the last decade I am also very interested in their use of technology in the same way I am interested in their substance use history.

Sometimes considering the child and the symptoms, I am even MORE concerned about their technology use than I am their substance abuse! Even more concerning is the parents disregard of technology use and lack of awareness for potential problems. They might be concerned that “Johnny has smoked a joint. I am too, however, sometimes beyond the presenting problem of Johnny’s marijuana use, I am WAY more concerned about the unfiltered laptop use in Johnny’s room while he is alone. Sometimes, I am more concerned about the hours Johnny spends sexting, texting, “facebooking and gaming more than any illegal substance he has tried!

Parents make statements to me like: “Oh I just don’t understand that technology world or I really can’t be bothered. At this point that I have to educate “Johnny’s parents that marijuana is a mind-altering substance but there are equal dangers of unfiltered and unsupervised internet use. A whopping 90% of 8 to 16 year olds have been exposed to pornography online while doing their homework. This statistic is for both boys and girls (Family Safe media, December 15, 2005). The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported rates of seeking online pornography increase with age. More than one third (38%) of male Internet users 16 to 17 years of age had visited X-rated sites on purpose in the past year (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor. Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, February 5, 2007).

Every drug of abuse relates in some way back to the brain’s pleasure chemistry and has an impact on the delicate balance of neurochemical function. Chemical drugs affect the norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin pathways in the limbic area of the brain. Similarly, when a person sees something or finds something they are seeking online there is a “dopamine hit to the brain. Dopamine release in the brain, in and of itself, is not a problem. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps our mood regulation. We get dopamine hits appropriately playing with puppies and being with friends. The rapid succession of “dopamine hits dispensed is part of the problem with internet pornography. Literally, depending upon the amount of use, dopamine is expensed faster and more rapidly than a person’s brain can keep up with the demand, which in turn negatively affects mood regulation in the long run. This is just one aspect of the many dangers affecting youth on the internet.

Pornography is considered the crack cocaine of sex addiction for the speed at which seeking stimulus can potentially release dopamine with rapid-clicks thus literally highjacking the brain. Kids with certain risk factors are more at-risk or vulnerable and unable to resist their use of on-line behaviors when exposed to cybersex. In my practice I have adults and kids looking at me saying they don’t want to do these behaviors any more, yet they feel powerless to stop. One child said to me when he was trying to explain how deeply his sexting behavior has impacted his life: “It’s like my soul has been robbed, I don’t want to do this anymore, yet I can’t seem to stop it either.

We can’t raise our children in a bubble environment, much as that might seem to be the answer. I advocate that parents get clear about their family values and consistently communicate these messages to their children. I wish for parents to get knowledgeable on the dangers present in our culture today. I believe we have to educate children about the dangers that face them, keep them from harm until they have the tools and information to keep themselves safe, and monitor them until they demonstrate that they are making wise choices in their behaviors. When children are caught with substances I advocate drug screening procedures to allow the child to build back trust and allow parents peace-of-mind while educating their child on the dangers of their decisions. Similarly, I think there needs to be a parallel to internet use among parents and children. I do advocate parents have a monitoring plan in place to intervene with teachable moments for internet use, too. The internet has too many dangers for parents to leave them alone without supervision. Amsterdam and Los Angeles are lovely cities, but one should be old enough and demonstrate good decision-making skills before going there alone.

Nina Laltrello, MFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor in Georgia . She holds her Certified Sex Addiction Therapist credentials through the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. She is a member of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and Georgia Association of Marriage and Family Therapy where she currently serves on the board. For Additional information visit her on the web at