Euphoria, a teen drama on HBO starring Zendaya, has just kicked off its second season. The show is a phenomenon highlighting a plethora of modern issues that teens face such as drug addiction, sexual abuse and exploitation, intimate partner violence, and related mental health issues.
The show begins following Rue, a recovering drug addict played by Zendaya, as she falls in love with Jules, a new addition to the school and a young transitioning female. The two young women ebb and flow on their journey to identity. Nate and Maddy are the school power couple, however, there is clearly trouble brewing beneath the surface. Intimate partner abuse is experienced by Maddie as Nate struggles to control his narcissistic rage. Cassie and Mckay are the high school fairytale couple, a star athlete, and the popular cheerleader. But McKay struggles with jealousy and resentment at a video spread around the high school of Cassie having sex. Kat, a non-traditional beauty in her own right, finds that she can make a ton of money through non-conventional online sexual encounters with men. Meanwhile, Nate’s father, a central figure in the social structure of East Highland, is a closeted gay man. He seeks out young men and transgender men and women on hook-up apps for sex without his wife’s knowledge. In one such encounter, he has sex with Jules, Rue’s love interest claiming he did not know she was underage.
There is no shortage of intentionality between mental health issues and Euphoria. While the argument that Euphoria is an accurate depiction of modern teen life is varied, the show has certainly stricken a chord through its reliability. For this, it is immensely popular.
Teen Drug Addiction
The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reports that drug use has gone up 61% between 2016 and 20201. Almost ten percent of twelve to seventeen-year-olds report using drugs in the last month. Teens account for 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US2.
There are many reasons why teens begin to take drugs including increased access, family history of substance abuse, peer pressure, and academic pressure3. A potential positive coming from the COVID-19 pandemic is that substance abuse among teens dropped significantly in 2021.4
Only more than two weeks ago, on January 15th, a thirteen-year-old boy was found dead due to fentanyl exposure. More than 100 bags of the deadly substance was found in his room.5
SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) reports that the main concern for teen drug abuse is prescription drugs6, such as opioids, Adderall, and others.
The consequences of teen drug abuse include declining academic performance and attendance, increase physical disabilities, a higher likelihood of suicide, an increase in mental health issues, and has a negative impact on the quality of relationships.7 Drug addiction has an exponentially negative impact on the development of teens mentally, emotionally, and physically compared to other age groups due to their developing physiology.
Of course, the best way to stop teen drug abuse is through prevention. This comes in the form of education, teaching both the students and the parents. Once addiction occurs, treatment becomes necessary to identify co-occurring disorders and to support the teen to recovery.8
Intimate Partner Violence
The CDC defines IPV as physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological aggression by a current or former partner.9 One in eleven females and one in fourteen high schoolers report having been physically abused while dating in 2021.10 One in eight female high school students report experiencing sexual violence in the past year. To make matters worse, sexual minorities are more severely affected in all categories.
Teens are at an increased risk of IPV when they don’t have the maturity to communicate their feelings and drug and alcohol is introduced.11
The IPV cycle involves the tension phase, the crisis phase, and the honeymoon phase.12 In the tension phase, emotions are pressure cooked over time. The abuser may nitpick, start fights, or act aggressively. The crisis phase is when the abuse happens. In the honeymoon phase the abuser calms, may apologize, and seek forgiveness promising it will never happen again. Of course, this is seldom the case.
Signs of teen IPV include on/off relationship patterns, spending excessive time texting or being online, having friends are in abusive relationships, isolation, slipping academic performance, and early and multiple sexual experiences and partners.12
Online Teen Sexual Exploitation
Online teen sexual exploitation is defined as the instance when a teen is manipulated into doing something sexual via online or an act recorded or photoed later posted online, social media, etc.13 There are several behaviors that often lead to sexual exploitation.
Grooming is essentially the building of trust by the abuser. This is done with compliments, attention, affection, gifts, money, and kindness. Blackmail is is when the abuser tries to get the victim to do something for them and threatens to release sexual videos or pictures if you don’t do what is asked. Boyfriending or girlfriending is when the abuser leads the victim to believe that they are in a relationship to create trust. At times pity and guilt may be used in order to gain feelings of sympathy and encourage teens to do what is asked.
Like other issues explored in this essay, teens are reluctant to seek help or report when they are in these types of situations. In this case, 83% of 9-17-year-olds who report having an online sexual interaction responded with blocking, reporting, or muting the perpetrator. 14 Only little more than a third reported to an adult or parent. One in ten teens reports having received some form of harassment involving sexually related content from partners or ex-partners.15
In a study from 2017, 25% of teens in Denmark, Hungary, and the UK have had rumors or worse about their sexual experiences shared online.16 In the same study, 6% of 13-17-year-olds had a nude or nearly nude photo shared without their consent.
Hookup apps or apps that can be used as such (tinder, bumble, etc.) are an accepted part of our culture. One key flaw in their acceptance is that they are addictive.17 The neurochemistry activated while on dating apps makes the ‘game’ what we want not necessarily the date. The swiping and the chance at getting a match are what drive us. Studies show that only about 10% of online matches ever actually meet.
In the context of Euphoria, dating apps have an interesting impact on marriage and relationships. First off, 40% of people in a relationship report being on a dating app.18 Also, the better you do on dating apps, the more likely you are to cheat in a relationship.
Dating apps cause about three times more stress for those that use them compared to those who don’t.19 This is because of the amount of rejection received. About 50% of matches don’t respond, according to some studies, and it’s even worse for men. A 2016 study showed that Tinder users had lower self-esteem and body perception issues.
However, a 2020 article at bigthink.com reports that 70% of same-sex relationships form through dating apps.20 The advent of Grindr, a dating app designed for same-sex relationships, was heralded as a sexual revolution for the LGBTQ+ community.
Also in the above study, 40% of dating app users report a positive impact on their psychology as a result of using dating apps.
Today’s kids are faced with more than any generation in history. Naturally, they will be faced with more negative issues. When I was a teen, I did not have to worry about a sexual act or a picture sent to someone would be shared on social media. It was bad enough without this threat. I imagine the threat is increased dramatically with the advent of these technologies. And this helps to explain the rise in anxiety and related mental health concerns.
I have been somewhat negative in describing my upbringing and the emphasis on not doing drugs, but in this case, I have benefited. Many of my friends that did not have the same philosophy are now in prison, have been or are in rehab, or are dead. The kids today are being taught there is a pill or drug for everything. I was (and am) still scared to take any kind of medication and have a general hesitance when taking a drug. Teens may assume that even if it’s a prescription it must be safe, but this is not the case. Pharmaceutical companies pushing opioids must have some idea of what percentage of their product is ending up in the hands of teens and should do more. I don’t mean to look for a ‘bad guy’ for the sake of doing so, but opioids are no good. Look it up. Outcomes are better when they are not used.
I believe a capitalist society produces the best outcomes. I also believe there are some serious issues we must contend with therein. Capitalism has created consumerism which relies on advertising. Advertisers’ main and most powerful strategy is to highlight WHY we need a product. The human response to the literal millions of advertising messages is to feel as if what we are isn’t enough. We feel we need more, should want more, and are programmed to desire more. This lack that we are said to have creates a void in many of us. And so we fill it with fantasy, drugs, and we act out when things don’t go our way.
But we find that we are enough when we take the time to look and rearrange ourselves. This is why coaching, psychology, mindfulness, and self-improvement are so important.
Much of what we want, isn’t what we want but what we’re told that we want.
I am scared to think how I would have acted growing up in the world these days. Save for a few lucky twists of fate, I would have been a casualty considering what I dealt with. Amp that up, it changes the equation and the answer isn’t good.
There is a lot of down-talking to the future generations, but just wait a minute and take stock. They are simply reacting to the all-encompassing and overwhelming message that they need so much more than just their authentic selves to be loved and accepted.
The solution is to change the values of our culture. That starts with those of us who are able to be a source of wisdom, peace, and compassion for everyone we come in contact with.