How To Get Inside the Teen Brain & Stop Medicine Abuse

Have you heard of dextromethorphan abuse? I hadn’t either.  Unfortunately, a lot of teens have. Only they probably call it DXM, Dex, Triple Cs, Syrup Head or even Skittles.

DXM is an ingredient found in most over the counter cough medicines and is a safe medicine that alleviates coughs…when used appropriately! Some teens, however, take excessive doses of DXM to get high. The side effects from cough medicine abuse aren’t pretty and include vomiting, hallucinations, loss of motor control and inhibited breathing and heart rate. When combined with other substances such as drugs and alcohol, it can be very dangerous and even lethal.

I recently attended a forum as part of the Stop Medicine Abuse campaign called “Inside the Teen Brain: Is There an App for That?” It was very informative and I’m thrilled to share this important information with you all!

The brain of an adolescent is only about 80% formed.  During this time, the young brain has more excitatory synapses than inhibitory synapses.  Darby Fox described this phenomenon perfectly with the simile, “Teen brains are like Ferraris with no brakes. It is our job as parents to be the brakes for them.” The information in this post will help all of us know how to push that pedal on the left and see those brake lights while our teens are trying to floor it!

The Stop Medicine Abuse prevention campaign started 3 years ago and the insights are helping us get inside the teen brain! The fear of social consequences emerged as a leading motivator in preventing teens from abusing cough medicine. Teens described the unpleasant physical and social consequences of their peers who get high on DXM in terms such as “sloppy,” threw up,” “acting like jerks,” and “nobody wants to be around them.”

Stop Med Abuse info 1Much is reported about “peer pressure” in teen friend groups.  And while that can lead to bad decisions, it can also keep teens in line by preventing them from doing something that is considered uncool.  And many things about DXM abuse are just that – uncool.  The campaign uses the negative perception of DXM abuse and teen’s fear of social disapproval to make DXM more undesirable.

The specific target audience for prevention of DXM abuse is teens between 14 and 19 who have considered using DXM to get high but have not yet tried it. When teens are curious about DXM abuse, because they have a friend who has tried it or heard about it in pop culture, they look for more information online. The goal of the campaign has been to figure out how to bring strategy to life in a way that educates the “fence sitter” teens without exposing those who know nothing about cough medicine abuse.  They have accomplished this by targeting teens WHILE they are searching online for information on DXM.

This award-winning effort (WhatisDXM.com) has used real-life testimonials, games, apps, and bait-and-switch videos to interrupt teens’ searches and change their perceptions of this behavior. And most importantly, teen abuse of OTC cough medicine is at an all-time low. The abuse rate is about 1 in 30, which is down from 1 in 20.  That’s fantastic progress but that means there is still a teen in about every class abusing cough medicine, so the effort needs to continue in full force!

In response to the question “Inside the Teen Brain: Is There an App for That?” Yes, there IS an app for that.  No, you can’t actually get in there and disable the “teen ‘tude” or use it to figure out how to get them to clean their rooms, but the DXM Labworks App has taken an interactive approach that gets inside the teen brain to show the effects of couch medicine abuse.  Stop Med Abuse App 2The app is a video simulation appropriately using robots as a play on words for the common reference to a DXM high as “robo-tripping.” In the app, teens have to complete tasks while (virtually) under the influence of DXM.  One “task” is to keep the robot from puking, which is one of the most common side effects of cough medicine abuse.  As Jimmy Fallon would say, “Ew!” Each time the teen is unable to complete a task, he or she loses a “robot friend” in the app to simulate the social consequences in real life.

The premise behind techniques such as the robot app is if you make an educational message engaging, the teens will soak it up and pay attention. Since teens are spending an average of 7 minutes on these types of PSAs, this technique is definitely having an impact!

  • Teens have been exposed to the integrated campaign in the digital space 525 million times.
  • Teens have directly engaged with the campaign’s content online (viewed, shared, clicked, commented) more than 21 million times.
  • Teens have visited the website one million times.
  • The apps have been downloaded almost 300,000 times.

I know what you are asking now.  As parents, how can we help our teens if we find out they are considering abusing cough medicine?!?

  • First, we need to make sure they know we understand it isn’t easy being a teen and we will always be there for them if they make a mistake.  If we are solely punitive, they won’t come to us for help or with questions.
  • Risk messaging has to be credible – don’t spout off scare tactics if you don’t have facts to back them up.
  • Disapproval should be focused on the behavior and consequences, not the teen. The abuse is bad; the abuser is not.
  •   Make it a natural, open conversation, not a lecture.  Also pick the right time.  If you try to have a chat right before they are going out on a Saturday night, they won’t hear you.  You will sound like the grown-ups in the Peanuts cartoons!
  • Don’t generalize by saying things like, “Don’t do it. There are consequences.” Give them specifics they can relate to such as, “Cough medicine is designed to suppress coughs so if you take too much, it will suppress additional things in your body like your heart rate and breathing.”

Whew.  As parents of teens, the worry of what could happen is overwhelming at times.  But try to remember that teens who learn a lot about the risks of drugs from their parents are 50% less likely to use drugs! So keep those communication lines open! Plus we have great educational programs such as Stop Medicine Abuse to help us keep our kids on the right track!

Stop Med Abuse info 2

Check out the links below for more information:

This blog post is sponsored by the CHPA’s Stop Medicine Abuse educational program. I was compensated to attend the event but all opinions (and teen stress induced gray hairs) are my own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *