The Challenges facing Adolescents – Keeping your child safe in an ever changing world

Moriah is not immune to the challenges facing teenagers growing up in today’s world. Whether it be managing technology addiction, social media or exposure to alcohol and drugs, parenting is more complex than ever before. Issues that once were never dealt with by schools are impacting on the lives of our students while at school. More than ever before, we need to partner with parents and families and our wider community in order to overcome the challenges facing our children.

Alcohol and Drugs

Unfortunately, experimentation with alcohol and other drugs is a part of the lives of many young people; however, adolescents are vulnerable as their brains are still developing, they are particularly susceptible to permanent damage from alcohol and other drug use.

The teenage brain is built to seek out new experiences, risks and sensations – it’s all part of refining those brain connections. Teenagers sometimes lack self-control or good judgment and are more prone to risk-taking behaviour. This is because the self-monitoring, problem-solving and decision-making part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – develops last.

See Statistics from the Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drug Survey 2017 (Published December 2018) for an overview of key Australian statistics (click here).

Given that Australia has long been considered a world leader in tobacco control, the Head of Respiratory Medicine at Concord Hospital has expressed concern at the rise in the use of e-cigarettes. While I addressed this in detail in June, literally last week, the US Centre for Disease Control along with the FDA and other clinical and public health bodies, launched a formal investigation into e-cigarettes, following the release of data linking 450 possible cases of lung illnesses (click here for more information) and four confirmed deaths to the use of e-cigarettes.

Our staff members continue to hear disturbing reports of e-cigarette use by young people across the eastern suburbs including students as young as those in Year 8. This is occurring despite the fact that it is:

  • illegal to sell e-cigarettes to a person under 18 years of age, and
  • only e-cigarettes that do not contain nicotine are legal for purchase by adults in NSW.

We know  that some high school students are accessing e-liquid nicotine and JUUL (click here) devices and pods. Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm brain development, with adolescents being particularly susceptible. We are very concerned about this trend as the concentration of nicotine in e-cigarettes is not regulated here or in the United States where the US Surgeon General is describing the explosion in use of nicotine as an epidemic.

There is no single age group of people more affected by alcohol and drugs than our teens. Alcohol is Australia’s most significant substance abuse problem; however, cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug for young people. 

The effects of cannabis on our youngsters is similar to alcohol in that the earlier they use it the greater their risk of developing a mental health problem; and the greater the risk of cannabis effecting their social and educational capacity. There is no safe use! The earlier they use it, (particularly under the age of 18) the greater the risk of suffering immediate harm (such as a psychotic episode) and developing dependence or addiction.

We know from research that cannabis is associated with high levels of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal. Our students need realise to that cannabis is addictive. Genetic dispositions and regular use may increase the likelihood of addiction.

The Gateway Theory

The ‘gateway hypothesis’ suggests that the use of less deleterious drugs can lead to a future risk of using more dangerous hard drugs or crime. There is widespread concern and some evidence that vaping may be a gateway to smoking and other illicit drug use. 

Cannabis can also be a ‘gateway’ to using other substances (for example, there can be a progression from alcohol to cannabis to crystal methamphetamine (ice) to offset the effects of cannabis). While it is not inevitable that cannabis use will lead to use of other drugs, on a merely social level, given the illicit nature of cannabis, purchasing the drug can lead our adolescents into social circles where other drugs are available and where temptation and risk is strong. Young males appear more vulnerable but our girls are not immune.

While there is no way to guarantee your child will never take drugs, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of your child developing drug problems. As the peer group takes on a central role in the adolescent’s life, sometimes to the exclusion of you the parent, it is important to know who your child’s friends are; and what they do with their time. Invite their friends over to your home. Be present but don’t hover. Ask the friends questions. Keep communication lines open and diverse. Take an interest in what they are interested in.

Sexting or Image Based Abuse (IBA)

The recent controversy generated by the SBS production ‘The Hunting’ has highlighted the issues about IBA. There are laws against asking for, accessing, possessing, creating or sharing sexualised images of children and young people under 18 years of age. 

In NSW it is against the law for anyone to take naked or partly naked photos or videos of any child under 16 posing in a sexual way. This also applies to an individual photographing themselves. Such images are classed as child pornography. We know that some of our students have also experienced pressure to share images.

National laws also apply when the internet is used. This applies to sexting for anyone under 18. This means that a person under the age of 18 cannot agree to sexting. According to the Office of eSafety Commissioner, 1 in 3 under 18s in Australian have been asked for or have engaged in sending or receiving explicit images. The increase in psychological disorders amongst ‘Generation Z’, especially self-harm in girls has been linked to the advent of social media.

In response to the Royal Commission, the NSW Government has introduced reforms to strengthen child sex abuse laws. Being found guilty of these offences can result in a criminal record and registration as a sex offender. 

There is a new state-based limited similar age defence for consensual sexting and sexual activity when

  • peers are at least 14 years of age and
  • the age difference is not more than two years.

However, sexting is always a crime when it involves harassing people. The ‘similar age defence’ does not apply to aggravated forms of these offences or when images are shared without consent.

Advice from our Psychologists

  • Ensure your children feel safe, valued and listened to. Open up communication by encouraging them to talk and listen with empathy and understanding. 
  • Help your children to navigate the difficulties of peer pressure by encouraging them to interact with peers who respect them and who offer them true friendship.
  • Do set boundaries but also give them age appropriate opportunities and trust.
  • Regulate technology use and make sure that your teenager is ‘safe’ online. This is a huge challenge in this age, but an essential one.
  • Ensure that there is balance in their lives. Teenagers do need sufficient exercise and sleep. 
  • Constantly encourage your children to be upstanders and to stay safe by making good decisions. 
  • Let your children know that if they are in trouble at any time they can call you and you will always be there to help them. 
  • Also let them know that if they think their friends are at risk they should call 000 for help. Safety is more important than fear of consequences. They could save a life. 
  • Encourage your children to have a help-seeking mentality. Encourage them to discuss issues and to seek help when they have a problem. Our school psychologists provide a confidential and safe environment for all the students at our school. 

ABOUT THE AUTHORjanprofile150

Jan Hart is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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