Anyone can become addicted to alcohol, drugs, or certain behaviours at any stage in life, but the young adult years are a particular high-risk time in one’s life when it comes to getting started on the road to addiction.

Why are young adults at risk of addiction?

Our brains are continuing to develop well into our twenties. The National Institute of Mental Health explains that the brain reaches its biggest size early on in adolescence (around 11 for girls and 14 for boys) but continues to mature after it has finished growing.

“…it does not finish developing and maturing until the mid- to late 20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. This area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritising, and controlling impulses. Because these skills are still developing, teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviours without considering the potential results of their decisions.”  

On top of the continuous development of the brain, young adults also experience many physical, emotional, and social changes, which can contribute to mental health problems – another large risk factor with regards to addiction.

Does sleep factor into teens and young adults’ risk of addiction?

 Sleep is another major element of a teenager’s development, and a lack of good sleep can be a contributing factor towards an increased risk of addiction in young adults. The Sleep Foundation states that:

 “Sleep deprivation can affect the development of the frontal lobe, a part of the brain that is critical to control impulsive behaviour… numerous studies have found that teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours… Drug and alcohol use, smoking, risky sexual behaviour, fighting, and carrying a weapon have also been identified as more likely in teens who get too little sleep.”

Teens and young adults need around 8-10 hours of sleep per night to aid in their development. Some studies suggest that almost a half of teenagers get less than the recommended amount of sleep per night. 

Teenagers, dopamine, and the link to addiction

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical released by the brain, usually in response to a reward. To oversimplify the effect dopamine has on our body – the more dopamine in our brains, the happier we are. This is why dopamine is often referred to as the “happy” neurotransmitter or the “pleasure chemical”. 

The Spark & Stitch institute, who sift through the latest scientific studies and data on youth, behaviours, and brain development to help improve young people’s lives, state this about dopamine during teenage and young adult development:

…the teenage brain appears to be more sensitive to the effects of a neurotransmitter called dopamine… The growth of more dopamine receptors during adolescence as well as an enhanced dopamine supply provides a rush that adults just don’t feel when engaged in the same activity. There is even some evidence that baseline levels of dopamine are lower during this time but the release is more intense, which could cause craving of dopamine-inducing experiences… This hopped-up reward system can drown out warning signals about risk.

As stated above, teenagers and young adults feel a ‘greater’ rush from an increase in dopamine supply. Most addictive behaviours (such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and online addictions) also trigger the reward part of your brain, resulting in a release of dopamine. 

The reward centre within your brain is also closely linked to the memory and motivation part of your brain, too. So, when dopamine is released as the result of a certain stimulous, such as the “high” experience during drug taking, your brain also associates the trigger (activity) and the environment (location, time of day, other activities), with that feeling. Since teens and young adults experience a more intense release of dopamine, the feeling they get when taking addictive substances or partaking in addictive behaviours will naturally motivate them to seek out similar rewards again. This can lead to repetitive behaviour, as the brain associates that with the reward and will be motivated to go the shortest route to the reward as possible – i.e., repeating the same activity. Repeating the same behaviours, despite the risks, for the same reward can lead to addiction.

Social and familial risk factors for addiction in young adults

A lot of what has been mentioned thus far has referred to physiological factors that put teens and young adults in a high-risk category for addiction. However, social and familial risk factors also play a role.

Social risk factors for young people can take a range of forms; from peer pressure, to bullying, to online pressure, to gang affiliation. Familial risk factors can include childhood maltreatment, parent-child relationships, and familial substance abuse.

Social risk factors

Peer pressure and popularity

Peer pressure amongst young people, especially during the secondary or high school years, is prevalent. It is difficult to avoid in some shape or form, whether it is groups of friends encouraging each other to partake in an activity, or an individual trying to fit in with a group of peers by replicating their behaviour or doing something to impress them. Research has shown an increased likelihood of substance abuse when young people believe that their popularity within a group of peers will increase with the use of substances. Similarly, young people seeking acceptance within a peer group will be more inclined towards alcohol use, since it is viewed as a communal activity.


Bullying puts both victim and perpetrator at risk of addiction. Research has shown that those who bully others are at a greater risk of increased alcohol use, whereas those who are the victims of bullying are at a greater risk of substance abuse, including marijuana, inhalants, and even hard drug use.

Online pressure

The rise of social media has led to young people being dubbed “the TikTok generation” with studies showing that 84% of teens use social media and 62% use it every day. Social media, and the desire for validation, likes, and increased online popularity can create an online form of peer pressure. There are many people that claim social media addiction or internet addiction should be classed as a recognised disorder, although currently if is not recognised as a medical condition. Increased use, however, has been shown to release dopamine, one of the early indicators associated with addiction. 

But it is the personal requirement for validation and decreased self-esteem associated with the increased use of social media and other online activities that increase young people’s risk of addiction to other substances or behaviours as a coping mechanism.

Familial risk factors

Physical and sexual abuse

Research has consistently reported a significant link between sexual and physical abuse during adolescence and use of nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol. There is also evidence to suggest that the use of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin is associated with physical and sexual abuse during adolescence. There is also the fact that many abuse victims suffer from PTSD because of their abuse, which is also a significant risk factor for addictive behaviours.


Much like with physical and sexual abuse during adolescence, research has consistently shown that there is an increased risk for substance use in victims of neglect. Neglect.

Emotional abuse

Research has established a link between emotional abuse during adolescence, which is when a child’s “intellectual or psychological functioning or development” is hindered, and increased substance use. Though this link is not as strong as that of other forms of abuse. Witnessing violence as a child (such as domestic violence between parents), however, increases the risk for developing a substance addiction to cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and even hard drugs. 

The above risk factors aren’t the only possible contributors to addictive behaviour in young adults. There are other individual factors such as ADHD and depression that are commonly associated with an increased risk of addictive behaviours too. 

It is clear to see that, although most teenagers and young adults transition into adult life without any cause for concern, there are many risk factors that can lead to addiction amongst teenagers and young adults.

If you are experiencing difficulties with addiction, either struggling yourself as a teenager or young adult, or you have a young relative that may be having a difficult time, don’t hesitate to reach out to The Recovery Lodge.

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