“Teen Vaping: should I be worried?”
Vaping has become a world-wide epidemic. The use of vape especially amongst teens have exponentially increased over the last several years and adolescents and young adults represent the population that are predominantly consuming the vape market worldwide. Approximately 1 in 5 adolescents are currently using electronic vaping products. Thought to be a “safer option” to smoking, teens have taken the use of vape to another level with growing popularity (Baidem et al., 2022). More worryingly, it is harming teens in a less period of time as compared to cigarette use and hold greater physical and mental health risks.
What is vape?
Vapes are electronic devices that comes in an array of shapes and sizes. Most vapes include a mouthpiece, a battery, a heating element, and a cartridge to hold the e-liquid or e-juice. It is this e-liquid that contains the nicotine that is combined with flavourings and other chemicals. There are several types of vaping devices which can include e-cigarettes, customised vaporisers or called “mods”, vape pens that resembles closely to a large fountain pen or some looking like a USB memory stick.
How it works?
The vaping device is battery operated that powers the heating component to heat up the e-liquid or the vape juice. The device as a result produces water vapor in which are inhaled into the lungs. Many assume that vaping is basically inhaling harmless water vaper. However, vape “smoke” contains nicotine which are highly addictive. In addition to that, the vapor may also contain fine particles that are inhaled deep into the lungs, with some vaping flavours even containing chemicals that has been linked to “popcorn lung” causing scarring and obstruction in the lungs. It brings along devastating long term health risks but also short-term health impacts including nicotine dependence, which can lead to disruptions in brain development, increase in shortness of breath, coughing, fevers, acid reflux, bronchitis and pneumonia.
So, why do teens do it?
Vape has gained increasing interest amongst adolescents due to both external and internal motivators (Grebenau, 2020). The wide array of “exciting” and “fun” flavours of the e-juice, affordable pricing and being easily accessible are some of the reasons. Unlike the typical cigarettes, vape comes in unique every-day tool designs that allows ease of concealments and the thought of it being less likely to be discovered appeals to this young population. While getting peer validation is important at this age, peer pressure and peer normalisation makes it an even more ‘acceptable’ and even ‘required’ behaviour amongst teenagers. Marketed as the “safer option” for adults wanting to quit cigarette smoking has also further contributed towards the use within this young group of people. However, in contrast, studies have shown that teens who vape are more likely to smoke cigarettes.
Nicotine and Addiction
What usually starts of as “just trying it out” as part of a social experiment amongst peers, can lead a teen to becoming addicted due to the nicotine in the vape. Nicotine is an addictive chemical. Nicotine when consumed regularly causes the chemical in the brain called dopamine to be released. This in which turns on the pleasure circuit of the brain. It gives out a strong feeling of pleasure and gratification, which like any other thing that is pleasurable, drives a person to wanting and needing more. Thus, when one takes in tens or hundreds of puffs every day, the brain is getting pleasurable signals to continue consuming nicotine, leading to addiction.
How does it affect teens then?
Important to note, our brain only stops to develop around the age of 25. So, in teens, the young brain that regulates emotions and cognition are still developing and maturing. The continuous and long-term use of vape, exposes the young person’s developing brain to long term nicotine leading to major consequences such as deterioration in cognitive functioning, difficulties with focus, poor attention span and impulsive control. It also impacts the young person’s memory and how they learn and practice new skills.
Several studies have reviewed existing literature and consistently found that vape played a vital role in social maladjustments in adolescents including poor learning and academic performance, increased aggressive and impulse behaviour, poor sleep hygiene, attentions deficits, memory and cognitive impairment and increased stress, depression, and suicidal ideation. Paradoxically, one of the most common reasons that many youths continue to vape was attributed to coping with existing mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression (Becker et al., 2021). While in fact, studies have shown that vaping was associated with 2.5 times of having a diagnosis of depression with higher depressive symptoms a year later as compared non-users.
Thus, one may ask – which came first? The mental health issues that led to vaping or was it the vaping that led to mental health issues. A typical chicken and egg argument. Nonetheless, whichever it may be, one thing is clear. Vape causes detrimental impact on teenagers not only physical, but also on their mental wellbeing. It is utmost important to not only prevent teens from vaping but to also help and support those who are addicted to quit as soon as possible. It is critical to break the addiction to nicotine and to prevent further health risks related to nicotine use. If addiction to vaping is addressed early on, it could produce positive impact on multiple aspects on a teen’s overall wellbeing – physically, emotionally, and socially.
As a parent, what should I do?
Parents can take steps in getting and understanding the facts around teen vaping. Your teen may or may not be engaging in vaping. It is best to get the facts from them. Clear, non-judgemental, and open communication between parents and teens is key in developing healthy and helpful coping strategies.
Start with having an open conversation about the topic. Utmost important that parents approach the topic with simple curiosity – to know and understand more, with non-judgemental stance and of course calmly. Try not to overact or quick to provide advice and solutions. Listen and allow the teen to express their thoughts and feelings surrounding the issue. Work on a solution and strategize together if your teen is struggling with peer pressure. Educate them with the knowledge and risks on the effect of vaping. As the famous saying goes, ‘knowledge is power’. With greater knowledge on the impact of vape, allows greater understanding, and increase confidence in making well-informed choices. Help your teen in making these informed decisions.
Remember, ‘monkey see, monkey do’. It is important that parents set a good example. Thus, if you do not want your teen to engage in such behaviour, it is best that you and the adults around them not to do it too.
Teenage years is a period in which they explore independence and develop a sense of personal identify and self-worth. Teens struggle in many ways, may it be at school, with peers or even struggling in establishing a sense of self. At this age, proper encouragement and reinforcement from their surroundings are pivotal in establishing a secure and strong sense of self-identity which is predictive of healthy mental well-being.
Therefore, if your teen’s mental health is a concern, may it be struggling with anxiety, low mood, low-confidence, low self-worth or even peer pressure, do reach out to a mental health professional. Additionally, if your teen is turning to vape as a means to cope with these struggles, it is best that your teen gets the help they need – especially if there is a sign of nicotine dependence or addiction. Mental health professionals such as psychologists and counsellors can help your teen to manage the addiction and build healthier coping strategies.
Grebenau M. Teen attitudes towards vaping and their relevance to policy. J Ment Health Sub Abuse Open Access. 2020;1(1):107
Tobore, T. O On the potential harmful effects of E-Cigarettes (EC) on the developing brain: The relationship between vaping-induced oxidative stress and adolescent/young adults social maladjustment. J of Adolescence. 2019;76: 202-209.
Becker, T. D., Arnold, M. K., Ro, V., Martin, L., & Rice, T. Review Systematic Review of Electronic Cigarette Use (Vaping) and Mental Health Comorbidity Among Adolescents and Young Adults. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 2021; 415–425.