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Most parents in Canada teach their kids how to swim at a young age because we have a lot of lakes and pools. 

“We can’t drain all the lakes and all the pools out there. It’s better to equip our kids with the skills to be able to swim if they fall into a lake.”

Chantal Vallerand is the executive director of Drug-Free Kids Canada, and makes this analogy when discussing how parents should educate their children about cannabis.

“No matter what we do there will always be substances available to our kids, and our kids are always going to be susceptible to being offered them.”

Vallerand believes simply telling kids to say no is not sufficient.

“It’s a matter of providing the right information, and providing them different scenarios of what they could do to make the safest decision for themselves and hope that they will have judgment when the time comes.”

This has become more important than ever during the pandemic. The pandemic has been a large source of boredom for many people, and federal government data shows it’s leading some teens to increase their use of marijuana. This is something which is especially dangerous for adolescents. That’s why some experts say it’s important for those teens to seek other ways to combat boredom.

Data from the 2020 Canadian Cannabis Survey, which was commissioned by Health Canada and conducted between May and June, states that 31.4 per cent of teens aged 15 to 19 who had used marijuana within the past 12 months increased their use of cannabis during the pandemic.

The pandemic is the reason for a lot of stress and anxiety in many people, leading to “a definite increase in substance use” according to Vallerand.

“We can really attribute that to a coping mechanism. So in times of uncertainty or stress and anxiety, people were turning, equally youth and adults, to substances as a coping mechanism to be able to deal with the extra stress and anxiety that was brought upon by the epidemic,” she says.

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In fact, stress and anxiety were selected as reasons for increase in cannabis use in 51.4 and 52.6 per cent of respondents, respectively. However, the most common reason was boredom, with 82.5 per cent of respondents citing it.

In order to better understand the concept of boredom, it is important to first explain the conditions in which it is created. Erin Westgate is a specialist in boredom related research and psychology professor at the University of Florida, and says that boredom is caused by a mixture of two things. 

“Lack of meaning, and a lack of attention. A lack of attention can happen when something is too hard or too easy. You’re looking for the Goldilocks fit, just right,” says Westgate.

The pandemic has effectively stripped a lot of meaning and attention from people’s lives and as a result may be related to an increase in boredom, according to Westgate.

“If you look at the national polling data, you do see small spikes in boredom in the U.S. around the time of early spring 2020…You see similar data in the U.K… folks are reporting higher rates of boredom in late March, early April 2020, than they were just a few months previously,” she says.

Dr. Lindsay Squeglia, associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says the effects of pandemic-induced boredom on the lives of teens can mostly be attributed to the closure and loss of extracurricular activities. 

“[Teens] have the time, the availability and fewer responsibilities right now. A lot of people, especially teenagers who are in retail jobs, food and beverage jobs, lost their job. The things that they were doing after school were no longer there,” she says.

But, that could have long-term consequences.

According to Dr. Squeglia, some studies have shown the brains of teenagers who use cannabis, “look a little different than kids who don’t,” and can cause cognitive issues in the future.

“Any insults to the brain during this time can interfere with the normal development that’s going on in your brain during adolescence and young adulthood.”

Moreover, teenage substance abuse can also lead to future substance abuse.

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“The people that are struggling with a substance use disorder, 90 per cent of them have started using in adolescence years,” says Vallerand.

Dr. Squeglia agrees, saying, “There’s lots of good data suggesting that the earlier that someone uses, the more likely they’re going to have problems in their lifetime.”

The future implications of increased cannabis use in teens are hard to tell at the moment due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, adds Dr. Squeglia.

“We’ll have to see how many of these effects are short term and how many resolve once the world kind of opens back up again … I’m hoping that with time, some of this will resolve but we may see some long term effects from this where kids really continue to struggle with depression or anxiety that was kind of kicked off with the pandemic,” she says.

However, according to Westgate, despite the apparent negative correlation between boredom and increases in cannabis use, boredom does not always cause harmful behaviour.

“For the average person, when you had a good option and a bad option, the boredom didn’t really increase your probability of choosing the bad option. Whereas when you didn’t have that good option, it did” says Westgate. “If you’re bored, and the only thing in front of you is something that’s negative, you’re going to be more likely to do that negative thing, because it’s something to do.”

As a result, Westgate speaks about how important it is to find other ways to cure boredom.

“Socializing (virtually) is almost always a source of meaning for people in their lives, and it’s not usually too attentionally demanding. The answer is really going to be dependent on an individual person, what options they have available to them,” says Westgate.

Vallerand encourages parents to ask questions.

“Are there other healthy ways of maybe brainstorming with your kid about finding healthy coping ways? There’s also the fact that you need to be able to acknowledge that at some level, it is fulfilling a need. If they’re using it, and they keep on using it, it’s fulfilling a need and it’s working for them. So it’s going to the root of, what is it fulfilling? How is it making you feel better? In what sense is that making you feel better? Is there an alternative way that you could get to those feelings without having to have a problematic usage of a substance?” she says. 

There are always professionals willing to assist as well. Dr. Squeglia is a big advocate for utilizing medical professionals so they can help foster skills and strategies that combat these negative thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

“Seeing a therapist to get treatment is always a good thing, and of course, there’s always medications that can help with anxiety and depression that you would have to talk to a psychiatrist to get prescribed medication.”