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Sex, drugs and the Internet; parents talk but do teens listen?

By AMY ARMOUR

Jude Hassan was a straight-A student in high school. He played football and wrestled. He came from a good home where he had all the tools to be successful. When Hassan was 15, he decided to try marijuana to fit in with his friends.

“That led to prescription pills which led to heroin,” Hassan said. “Heroin took many years of my life.”

Hassan, who is now clean, is the author of “Suburban Junky: From Honor Roll to Heroin Addict;” a substance abuse and drug prevention speaker; and a school and community liaison at Preferred Family Healthcare. Recently, he spoke to a crowd of parents and students at Wentzville’s Frontier Middle about issues facing teens in today’s world.

Talking to children early and often was the message from all of the speakers at the panel discussion, titled “What Your Teen Wants You to Know…But Doesn’t Know How to Tell You.”

“With kids, they are at an age where their brains are not fully formed and developed,” Hassan said. And because the brain is not fully formed, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Raising a teenager in today’s world can be a challenge, with kids facing peer pressure to use drugs, drink alcohol and/or have sex. Throw in social media and the decisions kids make are written in cyberspace forever.

“It seems that there are so many issues out there now that we [teens and parents] have to deal with, that it’s hard to keep up with all of it,” said Michele, a mom of two teenage boys, who asked to be identified by
first name only due to the sensitive nature of these topics. “Social media, drugs, drinking, sex – all of it. It makes my head spin.”

According to statistics from Preferred Family Healthcare, by the eighth grade, 28 percent of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 15 percent have smoked cigarettes and 16.5 percent have used marijuana. But
Hassan said the good news is that teens who consistently learn the risks of drugs are 50 percent less likely to use drugs.

Every parent’s worse nightmare

Cassie Morris, with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse [NCADA], said there were 712 drug-related deaths in 2016 in the St. Louis metropolitan area – 54 of those deaths were in St. Charles County.

“Those numbers have more than tripled in the last nine years,” said Morris, who noted the number of drug deaths were higher than the number of county homicide and vehicular accidents combined.

More teens die from prescription drugs than heroin and cocaine combined. Morris said the United States represents 5 percent of the world population, yet the United States uses 99 percent of the hydrocodone in the world.

Getting hooked on prescription drugs can start very innocently. Morris said a teen could be in a
car accident, break a bone or have a tooth pulled and be prescribed pain medication.

“But instead of getting three to five days of [pain medication], the teen is prescribed 30 days [of medicine],” Morris said. “It’s too much, for too long of a time period … it [creates] a dependence.”

Once the prescription is up, teens look in the medicine cabinets – in their homes or their friend’s homes. According to statistics from Preferred Family Healthcare, 60 percent of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them free from friends and relatives.

“More teens [die because of] overdose from prescription drugs than [from] texting and driving or gunfire,” said Morris. “We need to start the conversation and lock up the meds.”

Morris said it also is important to make sure the medications are disposed of properly. Police departments have drop boxes for old prescription drugs and medication disposal pouches can be used to safely dispose of the medications from home.

“And if you still need the medications, lock them up,” said Morris.

Annaka has a 14-year-old son who is currently in eighth grade. She said she worries the most about drugs – both prescription drugs and heroin. The St. Charles County mom attended a drug summit geared for
seventh- and eighth-graders and their parents earlier this year and was surprised by the drug use in St. Charles County.

“I learned a lot about what is going on right here in our own county that I hadn’t realized,” Annaka said.

She used the opportunity to talk to her son more in depth about the subject after hearing stories from recovering drug addicts, police officers, parents who had lost children to drugs and kids the age of her son who had been affected by drugs.

“I think talking about it is huge. Always letting them know there is open communication about these subjects is important,” Annaka said. “I also think having the kids get information from other resources that emphasize the dangers and repercussions is helpful because then it doesn’t just seem
like mom or dad nagging them about it.”

Hassan said a child’s personality and mental health can increase the chance of trying drugs. He noted that mental health issues can lead to a higher risk as a child feels the need to self-medicate, making
conversations all the more important.

“We have to be extremely aware, don’t neglect to talk to them,” said Hassan. “We have to make sure they are educated about all these things. Be open. Be engaged. Start the conversation so they will come to you.
“If you don’t educate them, someone else will – and that will probably be someone you don’t want to educate your child.”

 The Challenge of Social Media

“You can’t take back what you put out there on the Internet,” said Laura Bruhy, of Preferred Family Healthcare. “If you wouldn’t show it to your grandma, then don’t say it on social media.”

Jenny, a St. Charles County mom of a 14-year-old teen, worries about social media usage and her son not understanding the ramifications of putting something on the Internet.

“I also worry about him being bullied or not treated very nicely by other kids as he makes his way to high school,” she said.

Jenny may have good cause to worry. Bruhy said 1 in 4 teens have been a victim of cyberbullying and 1 in 6 teens admit to being a cyberbully. A survey of Frontier Middle School students in 2016 reported that, over a three-month period, 18.9 percent of students had posted something online or sent a text that might be hurtful to one of their peers.

“My son has talked to me about some social media texts that he has received. Nothing major, just that he wasn’t ready to discuss going out with a particular girl yet and how he could respond to that,” Jenny
said. “My husband and I often ask if he and his friends are doing things they shouldn’t like smoke or drink and he has said ‘no.’ We haven’t had to discuss anything major yet, but I would like to think he would feel open enough to discuss it.”

Jenny said sometimes she lets news stories or things at school prompt a conversation, but so far her son hasn’t initiated many of those discussions.

Annaka said she is very restrictive when it comes to social media. Her son only has an iPod that requires Wi-Fi and a simple cellphone that only allows texting and calling. He is not allowed to have a Facebook
page or the popular app Snapchat, and she just recently allowed him to use Instagram.

“There are several apps his friends have, but we still don’t let him have. You really have to do your homework. There was an article recently that listed the top most dangerous apps for your teens, one was Snapchat, which many of his friends have,” said Annaka. “He’d like to have the app, but that is on the list of ‘absolute no,’ and not just because of what he could possibly send to someone, but what could be sent to him.”

Annaka said she and her husband are probably stricter than most parents.

“I think social media is one of those things that once you give them full access to, it’s hard to take back. I’d rather have the exposure come slowly and in a controlled way,” Annaka said. “By also restricting
social media, you can reduce any issue they may have in cyber bullying – they either can’t contribute to it or they aren’t seeing what is out there to be upset by, people are way more likely to say horrible things online than to someone’s face.”

Kathryn, a St. Peters mom, worries about what her boys are checking out while surfing the Internet.

“I do worry about what they might be looking at on the internet and what they watch on YouTube,” Kathryn said of her 13- and 17-year-old sons. “I talk a lot about Internet privacy and safety though, I am very comfortable talking endlessly about that.”

What a 16-year-old says today on the Internet may end up hurting him or her years down the road.

“Nothing is private, anything can be used later in life,” Bruhy said. “In 2012, 37 percent
of employers said they checked social media before hiring.”

Bruhy said parents must be educated and
present.

“Your presence in digital life will help keep them protected,” Bruhy said. “Be involved in what’s going on electronically.”

You’re Talking, Are They Listening?

With one of her teen sons driving, Kathryn worries about drug and alcohol use in general, especially when driving. To relate to her boys, she shares personal experiences from her teenage years.

“I think talking goes a long way and I also think sharing information about what you were like as a teen is helpful,” Kathryn said. “I know many parents don’t want their kids to know what they did because it might seem like you are giving your permission, but I think it helps them know that you understand and have experiences that they can relate to.

“I heard somewhere that bringing up stuff in the car is good because you aren’t facing each other and that helps people talk about sensitive subjects. It works! It might also work because they are a captive audience.”

Kathryn said neither of her sons talk willingly about these issues, but she usually tries to find an opening in something else they are talking about.

“If they bring up a friend’s behavior then I poke around to see if I can ask questions to get at what they are thinking or doing,” Kathryn said.

Michele said it’s difficult to get either of her boys to talk about these issues.

“My 18-year-old just always says, ‘I know mom’ and that’s all when I try to talk to him about not doing things. My 14-year-old doesn’t say much either. It’s probably a conversation that needs to be had more
often with both of them,” she said.

But she’s not sure that talking is enough.

“There is more peer pressure to do/try things, and I’m not sure that just talking to them as they grow is enough, because some kids just want to ‘fit in,’ so they may try or do things that another child of yours
might not do who had the same upbringing,” Michele said. “I think it is a very
scary time for kids and parents.

“It’s hard to keep tabs on your kids and to really know what they are doing, especially with all of the electronics and social media available to them. I think it’s scary for kids because they are exposed to so much more these days, and feel much more pressure to follow the crowd. And it’s easier for them
to be sneaky about it and to keep it hidden from their parents.”

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