Recently, Motherlode, a NYTimes blog on parenting, posted this article: How Parents Handle Teenage Drinking. I was invited to respond. Mike Winerip selected the most interesting and useful responses to facilitate the conversation and my comment was chosen.

I’m relieved and pleased that attention is being paid to the topic of teen drinking. Forums like this one are a great place to join in the conversation. It is rare that public dialogue permits the validity of multiple perspectives even though it is often the best way for parents to feel more informed. We need to remember that ‘Just Say No’ is a myth and that talking with one another is important.

Adolescents More Vulnerable? Don’t Think So

Having read Adolescents more vulnerable to effects of drugs, alcohol on January 28th 2013, I was once again concerned with the overall content. What follows is my response to particular statements. I firmly believe that we are always changing and that it is important to remember that possibility is neither forever nor instant, in our own lives and our children’s.

The habits that you develop as a teenager are pretty much programmed for life.

This statement has got to be one of the most hopeless statements I’ve read about adolescence in a long time. On top of which, it exasperates me that experts (again and again) guise their negativity as concern. The teen years have been for some time now that period of our life when we are the most likely to experiment, take risks and push the limits. It is no surprise that drug use peaks-among the group that use- in their late teen years. Generally, such experimentation is not likely to end in disaster and that most adolescents who try alcohol or other drugs do not become frequent or problem users. (Stats here) And most teens grow out of it quickly, with rates of drug use dropping off dramatically when they reach their early 20s.

In MRIs of teens who drink regularly, the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) is 10 percent smaller than in teens who do not drink.

This statement is close to being true, at least according to the data I was able to locate. The problem I have comes with the use of word ‘regularly’ vs. heavily because in Journal: Psychology of Addictive Behaviors (2010),  they found damaged nerve tissue in the brains of those youth who drank heavily-four or five drinks per occasion, which constitutes binge drinking.

 Pot smoking is second only to alcohol as the leading cause of motor vehicle accidents.

I looked for the data on this statement and found these. Firstly, driving a car puts everyone at a hugely increased of dying, but you never seriously hear anyone talk seriously about not driving as a solution. Furthermore, car accidents are the leading cause of death for US teenagers and if you’re male between 15-24 years old-check this out-a motor vehicle fatality is the number one reason you will die. —-When we look at the top 10 reasons for car accidents, it appears the list is varied, but not that surprising. Things like distraction, speeding, drinking, drug use including illicit drugs, rain, running red lights, running stop signs, etc…are the big culprits. Specific to marijuana, some studies can demonstrate a clear bad effect of marijuana on driving, but there are studies out there that actually go the other way. While marijuana use may worsen reaction and coordination abilities, it isn’t clear yet whether the amount of marijuana used, or how it was ingested, contributed to crash rates. If I was able to find this information, you can bet your tech-savvy teen-ager will too.

Marijuana grown today is about 10 times stronger than that on the market 20 or 30 years ago.

There have been modest changes in THC levels that are largely confined to domestically cultivated and produced cannabis. Cannabis of this type is typically more potent, although it is also clear that the THC content of cannabis products in general is extremely variable and that there have always been some samples that have had a high potency. Also, joint sizes have dropped over the years from half a gram to about a quarter of a gram. In addition, pipes, water pipes, and vaporizers typically require less marijuana per use than joints and these items have become increasingly popular over the last 30 years. This could mean that more potent marijuana means less marijuana is needed to achieve the desired results

Within two weeks of use, an MRI scan of the brain of someone who has used ecstasy shows a severe decrease in the brain cells that contain serotonin. Even seven years later, those brain cells still have not returned to normal.

What matters is whether brain changes have associated functional consequences, about which those sentences are silent. I think the report of the MRI scan may be mistake and actually be referring to a SPECT scan study, which is entirely different.

Also, let’s look at the sentences more closely. The supposed drop in serotonin is referred to as ‘severe’. If that we’re true, you’d think there would be functional consequences. There is no mention of the dose that caused this “severe” drop. Is it a normal human dose? She states that changes last at least 7 years. How close to normal does serotonin come? If there are severe reductions, has the brain developed new ways to restore function?

Moreover, I checked on Medline and didn’t see any MRI studies that report that after one dose of MDMA, there is a “severe decrease in the brain cells that contain serotonin.” Nor did I see any MRI studies that show that after multiple uses of MDMA, there is a “severe decrease in the brain cells that contain serotonin.”

Clearly, parents want their children to be healthy. The question isn’t do we want our kids to do drugs; it is what is the best method to prevent and/or minimize harm when they are going through a life stage that for most kids necessitates pushing the boundaries? When are we going to stop believing and proliferating half-truths? What is the appeal of simple and misleading information when it comes to the topic of drugs and substance use?

I’ve wondered about these sorts of things for over 25 years and have children of my own, one of whom is 16 years old. I am preoccupied on a daily basis with what works to keep our children safe and healthy. Again and again, fear mongering and inaccurate information ends up hurting the very people the (so-called) experts are trying to help.