"Ennui” An Emotional Epidemic Among Teen Substance Abusers
The French term ennui deals with boredom, and a somewhat specific sort of boredom. It generally refers to the feeling of jadedness and absence of direction that can result from living a life of too much ease, a lack of values, and a sense of purpose in life.
Boredom and Teen Substance Abuse: A Connection?
A number of years ago, I was contracted with a child and teen residential treatment center in Michigan to help them develop a substance abuse treatment component for their residential program. I rolled my sleeves up and immersed myself in the program.
One of the activities I found most illuminating during my frequent consultations was sitting in on morning “check-ins” with one of several groups of teens. I heard the usual minimizing: "I don’t use as much as my friends.” “Cannabis should be legal anyway.” “Everybody does it.” I was curious about the emotional state of these teens, in the context of their alcohol and drug use. Their responses, which were almost universally the same, boiled down to a single word: “Boredom.”
This was a response that I heard time and time again from these teens, and it caught me off guard. I wanted to know more. What was it about “boredom” (or ennui) that might relate to their substance use?
Screen Time and Teen Substance Use
Surveys of the amount of time teens spend on screens are illuminating. A report from Common Sense Media found that the amount of time that children spent on screens (YouTube, texting, Instagram, TikTok, and others) has steadily increased, and dramatically over the past decade or more. For example, not including homework (an arguably legitimate reason), tweens spend an average of almost five hours per day on their screens. Among teens, that went up to 7 and a half hours a day.2
I’m not suggesting that tweens or teens are engaging in anything nefarious in these activities. Most of it involves social networking, entertainment, and gaming. At the same time, one cannot escape the obvious question: Are there any consequences associated with spending this much time on texting, Instagram, or YouTube?
Teen Substance Abuse Patterns
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 15.6 percent of 8th graders have used illicit drugs in the past year. That includes cannabis, cocaine, and opioids. That number increases to 36.8 percent among 12th graders.3
Those numbers are astounding, and they can only be ignored at our peril as parents. Virtually every parent is aware, on some level, of this risk, and everyone also wants to know what they can do to mitigate it. The answer, in part, may lay in this concept of ennui, and how it may be infecting our teens.
The Role of “Spirituality” in Recovery from Substance Abuse
Relatively little attention has been devoted to date to this idea of ennui and its possible relation to substance use in teens.4
It may not be accurate to say that the amount of time teens spend on screens, in and of itself, is a cause of teen substance abuse. However, could there be a more indirect link between the two? I was intrigued by this idea based on the teens’ responses, and it led me to contemplate an aspect of 12-step recovery, which argues that addiction is a spiritual disorder as much as it is a physical and psychological one, and that “recovery” includes in part the development of a spiritual aspect of person’s lifestyle. Spirituality, however, is not the same as religiosity. In reviewing the literature on 12-step recovery, I discovered research on this subject.5 Specifically, researchers have found that men and women in recovery from addiction do tend to spend time engaging in “spiritual” activities and that such involvement is associated with stronger recovery. These activities include things like:
- Prayer or meditation
- Engaging in altruistic activities such as community service
- Communing with art or nature
- Reading spiritual writings
- Volunteering to help others in need
Where Does Parenting Fit In?
Many parents express almost helplessness when I talk with them about the possibility of altering their teens’ lifestyles. But it may indeed not be feasible to try to eliminate Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube from these lifestyles. That said, it is reasonable for parents to assert themselves (after all, they do have some leverage over their teens) and insist on some balance in these lifestyles. Some are skeptical about how insisting on some balance can possibly be a remedy to boredom and ennui. But ask yourself the following: How many people have found some meaning, and perhaps even a sense of purpose, through pursuing activities such as.
- engaging in community service, such as fundraising for charitable organizations
- helping out at an animal shelter, community food bank, or soup kitchen
- engaging with nature through organizations such as the Appalachian Mountain Club or Sierra Club
- helping or visiting an elderly or isolated neighbor or family member on occasion?
These are but a few suggestions. A little thought (and a dialogue with your teen) can no doubt uncover more. The key, however, will be to overcome any reticence you have and insist on the need for balance in your teen’s life.
(3) Stats & Trends in Teen Drug Use with Interactive Chart | NIDA for Teens (drugabuse.gov)
4) Nowinski, J. Recovery After Rehab: A Guide for the Newly Sober and Their Loved Ones. Rowman & Littlefield,2021.
5] Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagano, M. E. (2011). Spirituality in recovery: A lagged mediational analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’ principal theoretical mechanism of behavior change. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35 (3), 454-463.