Managing the teen vaping ‘epidemic’

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New taxes on vaping and the regulation of manufacturing licences this month may not deter school kids from the alluring draw of e-cigarettes. However, an article in last week’s Sunday Times proposes that “top private and former Model C schools are using sniffer dogs and inviting lung specialists to address pupils in a bid to curb the shockingly high incidence of vaping — the smoking of e-cigarettes — by schoolchildren.”

A study by pulmonologist Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit at UCT found that 25% of matric students use vapes and nearly 30% of those surveyed use a device soon after waking in the morning. Almost a quarter require their vape to get through a school day.

Van Zyl-Smit explained in a radio interview, “They are certainly not without harm, and, compared to fresh air are far more dangerous than anyone should be inhaling. We saw what tobacco did… we are not prepared to do the same thing and wait 50 years before everyone drops dead of blue-spotted lung disease which we did not in any way predict.” 

South Africa’s ‘modern life skills’ specialist, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife, proposes that we will need to approach vaping education by using the lessons we have learned from a decade of social media obsession and addiction.

“Modern life skills, and things like self-regulation and choice, are what MySociaLife teaches in schools, looking at the realities of adolescence and examining it through the prism of what’s going trending this week on social media, gaming, and popular culture. It’s a useful doorway for us,” explains Dean McCoubrey, the company’s Founder.

“Getting a message to land is about presenting a robust case that is multi-dimensional. Sure, some kids will be impacted by the health scare, something like “popcorn lungs”, but the social inclusion and badge value of vaping outweighs any physical harm for many teens. Adolescence is more than just ‘kids being kids’, it is a whole world of social complexity that is driven by changes in the brain and their environment. Screens have changed things, and life skills are very different these days!”

MySociaLife outlines five key insights when educating teens about vaping:

Fear-mongering isn’t a long-term solution
Fear-mongering campaigns surrounding the potential harm of vaping, such as the idea of getting ‘popcorn lungs’, will likely fall short of deterring teenagers. This can be attributed to the unique neurobiology of adolescents, where the reward system in the brain is highly active, making them more prone to risk-taking behaviour. Moreover, teenagers often display a sense of invincibility and disregard for long-term consequences. Relying solely on fear tactics may not effectively dissuade them from engaging in vaping.

Are we being played?
The trend of vaping shares many similarities with the influence of social media on teens. Both industries heavily target this age group through savvy marketing techniques. The accessibility and easy availability of vaping products and social media platforms contribute to their growing influence. Vaping and social media often become intertwined as the demographic showcase their vaping habits on social media, further perpetuating the trend. Explaining why we want to belong, and why we share is an important first step in understanding how these companies play on our vulnerabilities.

Reveal the science of being human

Understanding the neurobiology of adolescents is key to grasping their susceptibility to pop culture trends. During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant development, particularly in regions responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and social connection. This heightened evolution makes adolescents more susceptible to peer influence, seeking novelty, and experimenting with new behaviours. Consequently, they are more likely to adopt trends such as vaping due to a desire for acceptance and a sense of belonging.

Expose the influencers

Vaping products have been marketed to adolescents through various strategies that exploit their vulnerabilities. Flavoured e-liquids, sleek designs that resemble gadgets, and endorsements by influencers have created a sense of allure and social status surrounding vaping. Furthermore, social media platforms have played a pivotal role in the marketing of vaping products, targeting young users with tailored advertisements and content. E-cigarette maker Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle claims by six U.S. states including New York and California that it unlawfully marketed its addictive products to minors. 

Get real with ‘Modern Life Skills’
Given the exposure kids have to social media, they need a balanced view and a relatable voice to present a case. Modern life skills education becomes essential in addressing the underlying reasons for vaping. Educating students about the psychological factors that drive their behaviour, such as the need for belonging, brain development, insecurity, and peer influence, helps them understand their choices critically. By equipping them with the knowledge and skills to navigate these influences, this hyper-relevant approach empowers young individuals to make informed decisions and resist potentially harmful trends.

The impact of vaping on teenagers and pre-teens, coupled with the parallels to the ethics of social media platforms, underscores the need for smarter intervention by adults. 

“Our EdTech platform already helps transform teen social media ‘addicts’ into digital explorers, passionate technologists, creative designers, or entrepreneurs, and we have seen it has to be about offering more reasons than fear. Understanding the intersection of pop culture, fashion, technology, and what happens in the brain around the spotlight of attention, inclusion, belonging, safety, and how we work as humans habitually, is a whole ring of central keys to unlock change. Be assured that vape makers and marketeers use many keys to keep kids inhaling.”

Dean McCoubrey presents modern life lessons in schools – and is available via www.mysocialife.com

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