Professor Matt Field is Professor of Experimental Addiction Research in the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society
“As a nation, we are drinking much more than we used to in the past, which is partly attributable to changes in the relative price (lower) and availability (higher) of alcohol. Many British teenagers get into the habit early, although recent trends suggest that this situation is improving (alcohol consumption among teenagers is slightly lower than it was 10 years ago).
“Nonetheless, drinking alcohol during adolescence is not a good idea, because the younger you are when you have your first alcoholic drink, the more likely you are to develop problems with alcohol later on in life. The same is true for cigarette smoking and the use of illicit drugs such as cannabis and cocaine: the younger you are when you start, the more likely you are to have problems later on.
“Why are adolescents particularly vulnerable to addiction?
“A large part of the answer comes from our understanding of the neurobiology of brain development during adolescence. The brain does not reach maturity until fairly late in life, with new connections between brain cells being formed right up until people are in their mid-20s.
“Importantly, the brain does not mature at a uniform rate. The more primitive regions of the brain, including the reward system and other areas of the subcortex such as those parts that process emotions, reach maturity relatively early (when people are in their early teens). The more ‘advanced’ parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, are not fully developed until much later.
“In behavioural terms this means that adolescents are particularly sensitive to their emotions and to things that are novel and motivationally appealing, but they are relatively unable to control their behaviour and plan for the future.
“This creates perfect conditions for vulnerability to addiction during adolescence, because the motivational ‘pull’ of alcohol and other drugs is very strong, whereas the ability to control behaviour is relatively weak. Furthermore, many scientists think that if adolescents do drink a lot, and if they do it frequently, then this might cause long-lasting changes in the way that the brain is organised, which can make it very difficult to stop drinking.
“We certainly see changes in the brains of people with alcohol problems (compared to people without problems), but it can be difficult to work out if alcohol caused those brain changes, or if those people had slightly different brains before they started drinking, and these subtle differences may have led them to start drinking in the first place.
‘Porn on the Brain’
“In principle, adolescent brains could be vulnerable to ‘behavioural’ addictions as well as alcohol and drug addiction, for exactly the same reason.
“Very few behavioural addictions are officially recognised by psychiatrists and psychologists at the moment (gambling addiction is the only exception). The Channel 4 documentary ‘Porn on the Brain’ asks whether pornography is addictive, and if adolescents could be getting hooked. As shown in the programme, it certainly seems to be the case that a minority of adolescents who use pornography exhibit some of the characteristic features of addiction, such as feeling unable to control their use of porn, and loss of interest in other activities.
“Furthermore, their patterns of brain activity when viewing porn seem to be similar to those seen in people with alcohol and drug addictions when they look at pictures of alcohol and other drugs. It remains to be seen whether addiction to porn will eventually be recognised as a psychological disorder, but it is clear that it can create problems for some adolescents and young adults who use it.”
Professor Matt Field is affiliated with the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies