The adolescent years are formative in more ways than one. Not only are young learners finding their way as young adults, but their minds are also still maturing. As the research of adolescent brain development continues to advance, recent findings have shown that the teenage brain is malleable, capable of responding to positive experiences that expand growth, as well as harmful experiences that delay growth. This dual malleability may help explain how young people are capable of tackling enormous issues like gun control and climate change while making decisions that go against their best interests (trust us, we’ve been there!).
An adolescent health crisis
Just as previous generations of high school kids emulated the likes of the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, more and more young people today are succumbing to the appeal of e-cigarettes (or vapes), falling into the perils of potential nicotine addiction with every exhalation of cotton candy-flavored vape juice.
In 2018, the Surgeon General’s Advisory reported that “more than 3.6 million U.S. youth, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used e-cigarettes.”
That’s especially alarming due to the fact that exposure to nicotine can harm the adolescent brain, which develops until around age 25.
Further, nicotine can also impact learning, memory, and attention—all of which are necessities for school success.
Worse, young people are even more susceptible to nicotine addiction than adults.
And while the FDA has finally been spurred into taking steps to “take flavored vaping products off the market” after years of waffling on the public health risks of e-cigarette use, the damage they’ve already inflicted is palpable.
In the words of a high schooler quoted in a 2018 New Yorker article published by Jia Tolentino, “Smoking is gross. Juuling is really what’s up.”
So, what can we do?
Educate and inform
Since many young people are unaware of the harmful contents of e-cigarette aerosol (aka “vape juice”), education about the realities of these products should be front and center.
Fortunately, there are already numerous resources available whose aim is to educate both adults and youth about the dangers of vaping, like the Tobacco Prevention Toolkit from Stanford University, CATCH My Breath, “a youth e-cigarette, vape, JUUL, and vape prevention program specific to grades 5-12,” and the Truth Initiative.
The power of student voice
It should come as no surprise that when adults tell young people how they should live their lives, that message will often fall on deaf ears. This is especially so as the punitive strategies employed by anti-tobacco campaigns rarely took hold.
That’s why some schools are turning to their students in the fight against vape use.
For example, the Santa Clara County Office of Education launched a pilot program in the spring that put students at the center of their anti-vaping strategy.
In the words of a 17-year-old student, reported by CNN’s Michael Nedelman, “When [the message] comes from an adult, it sounds so antagonistic but also like they don’t understand us.”
Using tech to detect
Living in a tech-enabled society, it’s also going to take smart technologies to help stem the vaping tide.
This is especially so as unlike cigarette smoke, e-cigarette vapor isn’t detectable by traditional smoke detectors, making identifying the use of vapes on campus difficult.
That’s why more and more schools are turning to sensors capable of detecting vaping, helping to reduce the burden placed on teachers and school staff.
Real-world problems, meet real-world problem-solving
According to a 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey, the top reason why students used e-cigarettes is that a friend or family member used them (39 percent).
That means that it’s as much up to us as adults to model positive behavior as it is for young people to emulate it. Ensuring that students’ wellness — physical wellness and social-emotional wellness — is maintained is paramount.
At XQ, that positivity is structured around building real and authentic relationships between young people and the adults in their lives, from teachers to school staff to mentors and beyond.
Further, when students are challenged and empowered to be the agents of change in their own lives, entire movements can have the potential of taking root and growing from a single student and spanning across the nation.
Let’s inspire them today. Let’s inspire them now.