E-Cigarettes and the Adolescent Brain: Understanding the Risks of Vaping in Teens

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In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of kids, teenagers and young adults vaping. Some young people see vapes (another name for e-cigarettes) as a healthier or even harmless alternative to cigarettes. Others may see vaping as fashionable or start smoking e-cigarettes to fit in with their friends.

In reality, e-cigarettes come with many health risks – especially for young people. Aside from their physical risks, the nicotine in e-cigarettes can affect the development of a teenager or adolescent’s brain, causing long-term harm to their minds and bodies.

Unfortunately, advertisements for e-cigarettes often overlook the dangers of vaping or reach the wrong audiences, leaving many young people and their families unaware of the risks they are taking. This blog offers some information about the mental and physical effects of vaping in teens, as well as some tips on how you could approach the topic with your child.

What Are E-Cigarettes?

E-cigarettes, also known as vapes, e-cigs, or vape pens, are electronic devices that heat a liquid and produce an aerosol (a mix of solid particles in the air). Vapes come in many different shapes and sizes, from disposable pens that look like cigarettes to larger, refillable devices.

The aerosol that comes from e-cigarettes often contains many toxic substances, including nicotine, metals, flavourings, and silicon. In many cases, products do not test or specify exactly which particles are produced, leaving young people unaware of the harm they are causing their bodies. Because aerosols contain solid particles, they can also deposit residue on objects such as furniture or books. Another person may touch and later ingest these chemicals, causing what’s known as thirdhand smoke.

Vapes first grew in popularity as an alternative to combustible cigarettes for adults trying to quit smoking. However, while in the short and medium term, e-cigarettes come with only a small fraction of the risks of ordinary cigarettes, they are still harmful, especially for people who are not already smoking. E-cigarettes are especially risky for young people because of the effects of nicotine on a child or adolescent’s brain.

What Are the Physical Health Risks of Vaping in Teens?

Vaping puts young people at risk of developing serious health conditions. It has been linked to:

  • lung disease
  • heart disease
  • some types of cancer

E-cigarettes are a relatively new product, and it’s still unclear what the long-term effects of vaping may be. There may be dangers that we don’t know about or that have not been adequately researched. If you are worried about the health consequences of e-cigarettes, you may like to speak to a professional medic for further support.

How Do E-Cigarettes Affect the Developing Brain?

Human brains are complex and intricate. Our brains take years to fully develop, continuing to grow and change well after our physical growth has stopped. Young people’s brains usually keep developing until their mid-20s.

Because a young person’s brain is still developing, they are more vulnerable to the impact of certain external and internal factors. Distressing experiences, substances, and trauma can not only impact their current physical and mental health but affect the way their brain develops in the future. This may lead to long-term changes in their mental health, physical well-being, and interactions with others.

Nicotine and the Adolescent Brain

Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, an addictive substance that is also found in cigarettes – some vapes contain nicotine even when they are advertised or sold as “nicotine-free”. Research has found that nicotine can harm a young person’s developing brain, affecting brain regions that control learning, mood, attention, and impulse control.

When we create new memories or learn new skills, we build connections between different brain cells. These connections are known as synapses. During the adolescent developmental stage, our brains build synapses more quickly, helping young people to learn new skills.

Nicotine affects the way that our brains form synapses, causing stronger connections between certain brain cells and regions. This can change the way that different parts of the brain communicate with each other and speed up or slow down brain activity. These changes can affect the way young people learn, their ability to focus, and their impulsivity. Using nicotine during adolescence may also make young people more vulnerable to developing addictions when they are older.

E-Cigarettes, Academic Performance, and Mental Health

There is a lot of research connecting traditional cigarettes to ‘social maladaptation’ – thought and behavioural patterns that make it more difficult for young people to navigate daily life.

Research shows that cigarette smoking is linked to:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Sleep problems
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Attention deficits
  • Depression
  • Aggressive and impulsive behaviour

Some scientists think that these connections may be partially underpinned by a phenomenon known as oxidative stress, a kind of imbalance in the body that is responsible for many of the harmful effects of cigarette smoke.

Researchers have found that many chemicals found in e-cigarettes, including flavouring, e-liquids and the metallic coil, may cause oxidative stress in young people. As a result, smoking e-cigarettes may affect a young person’s mental health, education, and behaviours – with or without the presence of nicotine.

How Common Is Vaping Among Young People?

In the past year, the number of young people vaping in the UK has increased dramatically. In 2022, 8.6% of young people used e-cigarettes, almost double the figures from the previous 2 years. In the United States, over 40% of high school seniors reported using vapes in the past year.

While in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, vaping is more heavily regulated, many young people still use e-cigarettes. According to one study, 16.9% of adults aged 21-40 in Singapore had tried e-cigarettes, even though they are completely banned within its borders.

There are many reasons that e-cigarettes are so popular among young people. Vapes and e-cigarette products often contain features that are appealing to teenagers and young adults, such as a diversity of shapes, colours, and flavours. A study in Singapore found that different flavours made young people more curious to experiment with traditional and electronic cigarettes and may play a role in early cigarette preferences.

The influence of social media may also play a role, with many ‘influencers’ and profiles with high numbers of followers posting photos of e-cigarettes. Social media can affect the perceptions of vaping even in places where other types of advertisement are banned. 

Finally, misconceptions about the health consequences of vaping undoubtedly encourage the use of the products. 

How Can I Speak to My Child About Vaping?

If you’re concerned that your child is vaping, you may want to have an open conversation about their behaviours and your worries. Make sure that you come from a place of care and concern rather than judgement. Listen to what they have to say and ask them questions about the reasons that they vape. Avoid using threats and ultimatums: instead, tell them directly and clearly that you don’t want them to vape and explain the dangers and risks. 

If a young person has been using e-cigarettes that contain nicotine, they may have developed an addiction to vaping. Addiction is a medical condition caused by physical changes in the brain that can make it hard to stop without treatment or support. If your child wants to stop vaping but is unable to, you may want to speak to them about professional help. Doctors, other mental health professionals, and specialist programs can offer effective support for smoking cessation and help young people to leave e-cigarettes behind.

The Wave – Transformative Recovery for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers sensitive and expert-led mental health treatment for young people, supporting them to plan and build better futures. Our whole-person approach combines exceptional clinical care with education, practical activities, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, helping young people recover from mental health concerns and rediscover their true selves.

We understand that young people have unique needs that require specialist and dedicated services. Our team of staff includes experts from around the world who specialise in adolescent mental health care and offer unequalled insight into assessment, treatment, and recovery techniques. Our programs offer a social setting where young people can bond with their therapists, support workers, and other teenagers and adolescent, helping them develop the skills to form stable and fruitful relationships that can provide security, companionship, and a sense of belonging. 

If you have any questions or would like to start the admissions process, please contact us today. We’re here to help.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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