The guilty party appeared on my Instagram feed: a 14-year-old Mount Maunganui kid puffing a cigarette. We'll call him A. I resisted the urge to comment since I want to continue seeing what this child is posting.
The reason A is on my feed is because my son, Master 13, had once used my account to widen his circle of online friends. Maybe he had misplaced his phone, forgotten his password - whatever the reason, the result is I see how some of his friends portray themselves on social media - as cool, sexy, sporty, rebellious - while emulating older heroes and heroines, some of whom are Insta-stars, sports stars or rap singers.
"Did you know A smoked?" I asked Master 13. "Oh yeah," he said. "He drinks, too. So does J" (who used to play with my son).
I'm not shocked 14-year-olds are experimenting with vices they see parents and other adults enjoying in moderation, recklessly, or a combination of both. As we creep deeper into the silly season, it's worth considering how and when our children access substances that have a more profound impact on young brains and bodies than on older folks. Research has shown alcohol affects two crucial parts of the brain vulnerable in developing teenagers. This can result in irreversible brain changes impacting decision making, personality, memory and learning.
Research also shows teens who drink are at increased risk for liver disease later in life.
I was no teenage angel. I grew up in a small town, and my friends and I used population sparcity and lack of things to do as an excuse for underage boozing. The sickly-sweet wine coolers I drank in my early teens may have impeded my physical and mental development. For sure they impaired my judgment at the time.
But I can't use past idiocy as an excuse for leniency with my own two children. Know better, do better. We understand more today than we did 30 years ago about how substances impact growing minds and bodies. Saying, "I did it, and I turned out okay," doesn't cut it in the 21st century.
While research using brain scans tells us alcohol can damage the developing mind, it's unclear how much alcohol it takes to do this. That's why experts recommend no alcohol is the safest choice for under-18s and that they delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.
Australasian research published earlier this year in the journal Addiction reported problem drinking and substance abuse in adulthood can be attributed to frequent teenage drinking. Studies suggest those who drink weekly before age 17 are three times more likely to binge drink, drive under the influence, be alcohol dependent and use other drugs than their peers. Drinking at least weekly before age 17 also increased the risk of smoking cigarettes in adulthood by 60 per cent.
We know better. Let's do better. Research highlights the need for reform of alcohol laws, in particular, to raising the minimum purchase age. It would be tougher for a 15-year-old to get his hands on alcohol if his 18-year-old mate is barred from buying it. Raising the age for buying booze to 20, while no panacea, would help curb the problem of underage drinking. Delaying when teenagers start drinking could have a significant impact on reducing problems later in life.
What about providing kids with alcohol in hopes you can monitor their intake? Another of those pesky studies found parental provision of alcohol was associated with increased likelihood of teenagers accessing alcohol through other sources, compared with teens not given any alcohol.
Why do we care? Because alcohol consumption is the leading risk factor for death and disability in 15-24-year-olds globally.
Smoking, for all its links to cancer, emphysema, other lung diseases, plus wrinkles and brown teeth, still holds cachet for young wanna-be rebels. Experts recommend price increases combined with additional tobacco control policies to reduce smoking among regular adolescent smokers.
Kiwi teenager non-smokers top the tables for experimenting with e-cigarettes, but few take up the habit, reports an international study published earlier this week. Long-term studies have shown a correlation between using e-cigarettes and subsequent uptake of cigarette smoking one year later. It means we should all be concerned about students, still wearing school uniforms, vaping in the Bayfair carpark.
I'll keep scrolling social media, not just to delay working, but also to learn how my kids' friends are portraying themselves. Those photos of underage smoking (maybe someday drinking, too) are a springboard for discussions about why waiting to engage in adult vices - or deciding never to start - is the healthiest course of action.