Drugs, Devices and Social-Emotional Learning Are All Connected

by Jason Breed, President, Digital Futures Initiative, and Jay Martin, Director of Training & Curriculum, DFI.

It’s overwhelming. There has always been teen use of drugs and alcohol. Then came opioids, fentanyl and the designer drugs. Now with states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, and a resurgence of tobacco use through liquids / vaping – it is difficult-at-best to stay on top of the latest ways to manage, let alone prevent, the use of drugs and alcohol throughout our (mostly) middle and high schools.

What We Know

  • 90% of adult daily nicotine users started using before the age of 18 (U.S. FDA)
  • In 2016, more than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigarettes over a 30 day period (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • The habituation of nicotine in teens is higher than any other drug – approaching 70%
  • Almost 9% of students in 2016 self-reported using marijuana or a THC substance through an e-cigarette device
  • A similar study in 2018 validated the number, finding over 8% of children in grades 6-12 reported using marijuana in an e-cigarette device
  • 4x – the potential increase in potency of nicotine and THC that can be purchased in liquid form compared to a normal cigarette or the marijuana joint

While there are other drugs like Fentanyl that have extreme potency, we know that most kids don’t start experimenting with heroin or fentanyl, they start with more accessible drugs like alcohol, nicotine and marijuana. This article is focused on getting to the root of the addiction problem and understanding the early actions we can take to prevent addictive behaviors in the first place.

Digging In


E-cigarettes and vaping are still relatively new so we don’t know all of the possible effects yet. We do know that nicotine is addictive and harmful no matter how it’s delivered though. Between targeted marketing and the perception of vaporized nicotine with kids, there are plenty of mis-conceptions about the safety of vaping. A recent national survey showed that more than 6 of 10 American teens believe that e-cigarettes cause little or no harm as long as they are used sometimes but not every day. Nearly 20% of young adults believe e-cigarettes cause no harm, more than half believe that they are moderately harmful, and 26.8% believe they are very harmful.

The graph shows the explosive growth of e-cigarette use in our schools: 

Marijuana / THC

As it pertains to the marijuana industry, today’s marijuana is no longer a plant. States have unwittingly led efforts to legalize what they thought was a plant that grew naturally. Today’s marijuana plants are genetically modified organisms (GMO) with THC (the psychoactive piece of the plant) that is 5 times stronger than the naturally growing plant. The extracted THC content, which can be as high as 98% THC, is effectively pure THC.

Marijuana is no longer the leafy plant most of us think of. The image provides a better understanding of what Marijuana / THC is today.



Teens don’t always think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. They can occasionally behave in an irrational, impulsive or even dangerous way. Teens differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems and make decisions – and there is a biological explanation. The frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act does not fully develop until your mid 20s.

Consider too that Dr. John Monterosso, a professor at the University of Southern California has shown that “the immediacy of reward is integral to the problem of addiction”. It is an issue of temporal discounting which means that people put less value on more distant rewards. The distant, uncertain reward, appears less valuable
than the immediate, certain one – even though the distant, uncertain reward might be greater.

Substance use in children inhibits the development of the frontal cortex of the brain which prevents the maturity of key societal behaviors that kids need to be successful generally in life. Additionally, we are finding that adolescent use of social media and devices can also inhibit the development of these key societal behaviors that we often refer to as Emotional Intelligence. So early on, children are being depleted of the emotional advantages they need to prevent addictive behaviors in the first place.

Giving kids the foundation to develop Self-awareness, self-regulation and internal motivation can unlock the keys to helping them prevent the urges of addiction in the first place.

What Can We Do?

Our ability to manage our emotions in a healthy way profoundly impacts our happiness on a daily basis. Drugs, Devices and Social-Emotional Learning are all connected and the prevention methods for children need to evolve as societal trends change.

So, what about Emotional Intelligence? What difference does it make if kids have Emotional Intelligence? Emotional Intelligence is linked to emotional competence. It is also tied to social and emotional learning, the development of healthy, life promoting behaviors and has been proven to reduce some of the risk factors associated with alcohol and other drug abuse in adolescents and adults (Ken Russel Coelho, 2012).

Our children are a new era of digital natives. They think differently, act differently and have different expectations. What is not different though, is the need to practice and continue to develop their emotional intelligence skills. That is where we as teachers and parents can act. 

What’s My Role?

As mentors, law enforcement, parents, and responsible adults, we can no longer just tell kids, “Don’t do drugs.” We have to recognize why more kids are using drugs and understand how emotional intelligence can have lasting impact in the prevention of addiction and long-term well-being of our kids. We have to understand the root of why children start using substances due to the emotional attachment of wanting to fit-in, feel-good or forget their feelings.

This is all in addition to teaching them the effects of drugs and the facts that drugs will damage or alter a child’s brain, body and future. But no mistake, just teaching the facts about drug use, will get you more of the same. We have to evolve our thinking and the tools we use to help children prevent and manage the mental urges of substance use by introducing aspects of emotional intelligence and letting them practice those skills to maturity.

Our children need to know they have value and meaning that is defined by family and school, not social media. They need to develop dreams and aspirations through discovery, thinking and boredom – not idealistic behaviors they see online. They need to practice these skills in a safe setting so they can use them for a lifetime.

As SROs and mentors, start teaching curriculum that is more than “just say no”. Teach lessons that goes directly to the root of why children start using due to the emotional attachment of wanting to fit-in, feel-good or forget their feelings.

Children are presented with false information everywhere online regarding marijuana, vaping devices and other substances from sources that do not have our kids’ safety in mind. As students mature, use curriculum that discusses the truths about the actual impact that drugs will have on a developing child’s brain over that of an adult and take time to discuss the drug industry and how to be aware of the strategies being used by these companies to sell to new users.

If you are new to teaching or are looking for curriculum that meets all of these goals, consider Digital Futures Initiative Substance Use curriculum that is available to all SROs, schools and teachers for free.

Reprinted from the Winter 2018 edition of School Safety, the Official Publication of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Digital Futures Initiative (DFi)

DFi’s mission is to empower educators, parents and communities with informative, useful resources and solutions to help guide today’s digitally-connected youth on making better decisions, mitigating digital threats and using the power of digital, mobile and social media for their benefit.

DFi provides the necessary tools and training programs for educators, law enforcement (SRO’s) and parents to help them instruct kids on safer, more responsible internet and mobile use, and to better manage specific problems that can arise—including cyberbullying, sexting, online predators, substance use, loss of emotional intelligence, distracted driving and more.

Digital Futures Initiative (DFi) was created to deliver digital life skills to students and parents in an innovative, consistent way. Lessons are designed by curating the best and most current content available in the world and the curriculum is made available for FREE to any school, county or group who needs it. The program includes all of the self-paced online training, powerpoints, images, videos, presenter’s notes, and in-class activities that are needed to start teaching digital citizenship in your classrooms today.

To sign up simply go to https://Certify.DFiNow.org and register as a new user after that use as many of the lessons that you need.

Thanks! Look for our email in the next few minutes!