Children are so full of energy all the time. Their creativity, lack of inhibition and zest for life are qualities even adults would like to emulate. While on the one hand, these traits make them extremely receptive, on the other, they make them vulnerable to vices. As children are highly impressionable during their formative years, they are at a greater risk of developing harmful habits that might affect them in the long term.
Addiction is one such habit. It begins with ingesting a substance or engaging in an activity that one finds pleasurable. But this habit can quickly progress to a stage where one feels a strong compulsion to do it, to an extent where one’s health and life is affected. Addictive substances, as we know, could range from something as simple as paint thinner to serious narcotic drugs like cocaine. There are also activities–from overeating to gambling to sex–that work on the human brain the same way as these substances.
With the advent of internet and technology, today, children are exposed to things that are considered highly inappropriate for their age. There is also an alarming increase in the availability and accessibility of psychoactive substances, pornographic content and other forms of ‘adult’ indulgences. As a result, children are at risk of developing an addiction towards one or more of these substances or activities. In this article, Soulveda attempts to get to the root of addiction in children, explores its many kinds and shares experts’ insights on the subject.
What exactly happens in the brain when an individual develops an addiction? Indulging in an addictive substance or a rewarding activity triggers the pleasure centres of our brain. A chemical called dopamine floods the organ, and this incredibly good feeling is stored in our memory forever. This makes us crave it more and repeatedly, making us indulge in these substances or activities again and again.
Now, here’s the tricky part. Dopamine is a substance that the brain produces– even under normal circumstances–every time we experience pleasure. But, as the addiction progresses, the brain loses its ability to release dopamine and becomes dependent on the addictive substance or activity. This is what makes addicts desperate for their fix. They feel it is the only way they will ever feel happy again.
Addiction is an illness that wreaks havoc in people’s lives. They get hooked on to a substance or activity, and before they realise it, they are spending all their money getting their fix. It ruins their health, their relationships and ultimately, the very ability to live their lives. The effects, as we can imagine, are much, much worse in younger individuals. Their vulnerability makes children develop an addiction faster, reckons Executive Director of Abhayam Foundation PJ Albert. “When it comes to drug addiction, the early age limit has dropped to 12 in the recent years. It is easier to get people hooked when they are younger. This is why drug dealers target school children now,” he says.
Sometimes children might be overindulging in their video games or food or other substances to cope with problems like bullying at school or depression, or worse, abuse.
There is no denying that whether in adults or in children, the first step towards addiction is often a choice. In some cases, however, children may have a genetic predisposition to develop an addiction. Says Dr Ashok Rau, psychiatrist and CEO of Freedom Foundation, “A natural deficiency in the dopamine levels in the brain may make an individual more vulnerable. So, when presented with an opportunity to try a drug or an addictive activity, they might just take it up.”
Peer pressure is said to be another reason children end up experimenting with drugs. The need to appear ‘cool’ and fit into their social groups, may lead them into the fatal trap of addiction. In the lower strata of society, children may engage in drugs to disengage from pressing problems like hunger, poverty or abuse. Children who come from dysfunctional families may attempt to seek comfort in the dopamine rush induced by such activities. Most of the time, lack of love is at the heart of the problem, says Albert.
It may be safe to say, however, that not every child may be at risk of developing a drug addiction. There are others forms of less-severe addiction that are quite common. Says Dr Hemant Mittal, a psychiatrist, “Children of ages 10-14 generally tend to develop an addiction to food or gadgets. This could be because of their lack of socialising skills and the comfort they derive from eating and staying glued to their devices. Ages 15 and upward, they start mimicking adult behaviour by watching pornography, smoking cigarettes and consuming alcohol.”
Some of us may feel that such experimentation and indulgences are a part of the phase of growing up. And they may be right. But that does not mean children can be given a free rein. The danger lies in the fact that things can quickly spiral out of control. This is why understanding the child and figuring out what is making them engage in these activities makes all the difference. As Dr Mittal points out, sometimes children might be overindulging in their video games or food or other substances to cope with problems like bullying at school or depression, or worse, abuse.
Perhaps, the solution is to become your child’s best friend. And in cases where that is not possible, a trusted therapist may be brought in to untie knots and create ease of communication. Talking to the child in an honest, non-judgmental manner may help them open up about their problems and seek help. And the earlier this is done, the better the chances of recovery and rehabilitation. As Albert says, “If the addict is willing to make a change and do what it takes, there is a 100 per cent chances of complete rehabilitation.”
By sorting out the underlying problems that made the child develop an addiction in the first place, we can gradually wean them off the habit and restore normalcy. The silver lining may just be that, irrespective of the problems they get into, children have the strength and resilience to recover and make a fresh start. By replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones, we can help them chart a new course for the rest of their lives.