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Understanding Teen Behavioral Addictions: The Bridge to Risky Behaviors

Understanding Teen Behavioral Addictions: The Bridge to Risky Behaviors

In today’s fast-paced digital era, behavioral addictions among teenagers are becoming a growing concern for many families. These addictions are not related to substances but are centered around seemingly harmless daily activities like social media, unhealthy eating habits, and even romantic pursuits. However, the consequences of these addictions are severe, leading to decreased academic performance, strained family relationships, and compromised mental health. As the number of such cases continues to rise, the need for understanding and intervention becomes more critical. Parents and guardians are faced with the urgent task of identifying the subtle signs of these behavioral addictions and taking necessary steps to steer their teens toward a healthier lifestyle.

Jasmine’s Journey: A Mother’s Realization of Her Teen’s Behavioral Addiction Struggles

Over the past few months, Jake seemed to retreat into a shell. He was always on his phone, even during family dinners, and when Jasmine tried talking to him, he’d snap or withdraw further. Jasmine decided to confront the matter head-on.  After what seemed like hours, Jake admitted his addiction to a mobile game. It started as harmless fun but gradually consumed him. He spent most of his awake hours playing and chatting with strangers, some of whom bullied him for not being a good enough player. Somehow, the game became his reality, and he felt trapped. Jasmine’s heart ached, but she quickly realized this was just the beginning. The issue was not just about a game. She’d somehow missed the signs of his behavioral addiction. The guilt was overwhelming. Feeling lost, Jasmine realized she needed to know more. The journey to reclaim Jake from the clutches of this behavioral addiction was challenging, but she found a way to help her son.

Defining Behavioral Addictions in Teens: Beyond the Surface

What is Behavioral Addiction?

Behavioral addictions involve the compulsion to continuously engage in activities that harm a person’s well-being. Adults with addictions to gambling or pornography often find themselves unemployed, broke, and estranged from family and friends. When teen behavioral addictions affect adolescents, the addiction typically impacts their schoolwork and their family dynamics. A teen with a behavioral disorder may also endanger themselves by participating in risky behavior, either alone or with a group of peers. The link between teen behavioral addictions and risky behaviors makes this type of addiction just as serious and life-threatening as substance addiction. The evidence is overwhelming that behavioral addictions disrupt the chemical balance in the brain. By stimulating the reward center of the brain, behavioral addictions work to create an addiction similar to the way drugs create addiction. However, behavioral addictions do not produce the immediate physical signs–bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, drowsiness, “tweaking”–as drug addiction.

Teen Risky Behaviors Associated with Behavioral Addictions

The Digital Dilemma: Social Media’s Grip on Teen Brains

Cellphone/Social Media

Teenagers are highly vulnerable to social media addiction. Between the ages of 12 and 17, a teen’s brain grows exponentially. Hormones surge throughout the body, changing the way the brain perceives others and the world. It is during this time that a teen’s self-identity undergoes dramatic adjustments. Unfortunately, social media is now playing a huge role in the development of that self-identity and sense of self-worth. According to the Director of Behavioral Health, Jefferson Health, Nancy DeAngelis, CRNP:
“Overusing social media can rewire a teenager’s brain to persistently seek out immediate gratification. Social media provides this instant gratification. It also leads to addictive, compulsive, and obsessive behaviors”.
Self-harm and suicidal ideation are some of the risky behaviors associated with a social media behavioral addiction. While immersing oneself in Instagram or Facebook can make a teen feel good because their posts are receiving attention, it can also cause depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Just one negative statement made on a teen’s most recent post can turn that teen’s world upside down and potentially lead to major depression or even suicide. Peer acceptance is a driving factor in most teen behavioral addictions, especially social media addiction. When a teen does not receive the positive attention they crave, they often resort to extreme methods to get that attention. Teen girls may post pictures of themselves in revealing clothing and wearing heavy make-up in order to receive attention. This type of risky behavior is an open door for manipulative sexual predators preying on teen girls with low self-esteem and an addiction to social media.

Anorexia/Binge-Eating Disorders

Another common teen behavioral addiction that promotes risky behavior is eating disorders. Food addictions–whether a teen eats too much or too little–activate the dopamine reward center of the brain just like drugs do. When a teen who is anorexic denies themselves the pleasure of eating because they think they are overweight, this denial gives them a type of euphoria almost equal to what drug users feel when they are high. Both anorexia and binge-eating disorders are often used by teens to self-medicate for depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder. The temporary feeling of being in control of unpleasant emotions by withholding food or overindulging in food is what causes and perpetuates this behavioral addiction. The eating disorder itself is a risky behavior. Losing or gaining weight can cause heart problems, organ failure, malnutrition, and ultimately, hospitalization for serious medical issues. Teens with binge-eating disorder may resort to stealing money from their parents or shoplifting food if they cannot afford to buy the amount of food they need to appease their addiction. Teens with anorexia may also steal over-the-counter diet pills to suppress their appetite.

Risky Romances: The Struggles of Sex Addiction

Teen girls who have multiple sex partners put themselves at risk for pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and rape. Teen boys with multiple sex partners put themselves at risk for STDs and becoming teen fathers. In addition, the U.S. CDC reports that studies indicate a definite correlation between sexually risky behavior and substance use, with the likelihood of an increased number of sex partners associated with more drug and alcohol abuse. Teenagers who do not use drugs or alcohol are the least likely to have a sexual addiction and sexual risk-taking.

Early Detection: Recognizing and Addressing Your Teen’s Risky Behaviors

Does My Teen Have a Behavioral Addiction?

What Kind of Treatment is Available for Teen Behavioral Addictions?

How can a parent determine if their teen needs treatment for a behavioral addiction? Since behavioral addictions do not begin as full-blown addictions, it can be difficult to detect the early signs of a developing behavioral addiction. For example, an awkward 12-year-old boy becomes an outgoing, handsome teen seemingly overnight. His parents are happy for their son who went from having no girlfriends to having multiple girlfriends. In fact, he seems to change girlfriends as often as he changes his clothes. Should these parents worry that their son has a sex addiction? What about the teen girl who weighs each portion of food she eats, skips breakfast, and exercises constantly in her room? Should her parents be worried when their child is five feet three inches tall and weighs 80 pounds? Both examples involve risky behaviors. The teen boy is putting himself at risk for impregnating a girl or getting an STD, while the teen girl is risking her physical and mental health by refusing to maintain her nutritional needs. In cases like these, parents should trust their intuition, that “six sense” all parents have when it involves their children. If a parent suspects their teen’s behavior is abnormal and not just one of the many phases teens pass through without consequences, it may be time to learn more about the benefits of early intervention and the various treatment programs available for teen behavioral addictions.

Stories of Hope: How Intervention Transforms Lives of Teens with Addictions

What to Expect Before and After Your Teen Enters a Treatment Program for a Behavioral Addiction

Ruben

When Ruben started junior high school at age 13, he developed a bad case of acne that did not respond well to medications. His nearsightedness also worsened, which forced him to wear glasses with thick lenses. “My low self-esteem and insecurities were eating me alive”, Ruben explained. “I was miserable at home and at school. Nobody bullied me at school, but I didn’t have any really close friends. One day, I overheard some girls talking about how many “likes” they got on a picture they posted on Instagram. I thought about how I would love to have somebody like my picture, even if it was from somebody I didn’t know. So, I went on the social media site they had been talking about and spent hours scrolling the site. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had invented a fake identity–Mike. I even stole another guy’s picture and claimed it was me”. At first, Ruben enjoyed the attention he received from girls. He enjoyed interacting with them and pretending to be somebody he wished he could be. Oddly, the initial elation began to fade after a few months. He spent nearly all his waking hours on his cell phone, pretending to be this hot guy. His grades suffered. His parents threatened to take his cell phone, which enraged him. He fell into a deep depression and began cutting himself. But he could not stop pretending to be Mike. Ruben’s parents admitted him to a residential treatment center, where he began receiving therapy and counseling for his behavioral addiction.
“At the center, I discovered another, wonderful side to myself and to life. I made lasting friendships with other kids like myself and realized that my behavioral addiction actually made me feel worse, not better. I learned so much about accepting myself for who I am, and that it is what is inside that counts, not what’s on the outside”.

Julie

“When I entered a treatment program for binge-eating, I felt like I just didn’t care about anything anymore–not even living. Within a few weeks of talking to caring therapists and counselors who understood exactly how I felt, I came to realize that maybe I could be helped, that maybe there were people who could actually find out why I couldn’t stop binging”. Julie says that the educational classes provided by the program showed her how binging on food affected her brain.
“I didn’t know that eating all that junk was actually making me feel high, just like an addict feels after taking drugs. My therapist then used cognitive behavioral therapy to change the way I thought about myself. I could not believe how much more in control of myself and my food addiction I was when I graduated from the program”.
Worried about your teen’s behavioral addiction? Get them the help they need today! Learn more about specialized residential treatment programs tailored for teens.
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