For the first time, expert physicians and specialists from Sansum Clinic and UCSB gathered for an afternoon roundtable on teen health in Santa Barbara County Friday afternoon at the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, where the panel shared their collective wisdom and clinical experience on the greatest health risks teens face and what parents can do to encourage good decisions.
The panel gave 10-minute answers to questions from the moderator, Dr. Marjorie Newman, on their area of expertise. The panel included pediatricians, urgent care doctors, OBGYNs, and even Sansum’s Vice President of Applications and Analytics.
The event covered some of the most urgent topics facing families of teenagers such as sexually transmitted diseases, substance and alcohol addiction, screen time and mental health, contraception, preventing HPV, sports-related injuries, acne and skin cancer prevention.
Dr. Kurt Ransohoff, Sansum’s CEO and CMO, himself a father of two adult daughters, said while he’s seen many new challenges for parents, some things, like concern over sports injuries or drug abuse, have stayed the same.
“It’s clear that some teen issues change over time, and some of them are just immutable,” Dr. Ransohoff told the crowd.
While many of these issues are timeless concerns, it was clear from the brief Q&A what most in the room were there to hear about: screen time and vaping.
Visiting from UCSB’s Student Health Services, Dr. Laura Polito shared how prevalent the use of screens has become with children now being raised in a digital world.
“Every time I walk in the room at UCSB Student Health they are on a device. They are on their phone. They are looking at their watch and flipping through their watch. They are on their laptops. And it’s been 100%, which is rare,” said Dr. Polito.
While there are positive aspects about the rise of the internet, like the opportunity for teens to find healthy communities online, Dr. Polito laid out several health issues that have been linked to extended screen time.
A major factor has been teens replacing typical activities, like playing outside or in person interaction, with their screens. The increase in screen time has led to a decrease in physical activity, an increase in weight, and a change in food choices, said Dr. Polito.
“There are a whole host of physical effects that we have known about for a long time. Because this is relatively new in terms of technology, a lot of the mental health effects that we’re seeing, we’re only now just starting to see them,” said Dr. Polito.
One connection researchers have made is between screen time and depression or anxiety.
“The more time a child spends on different screen devices, the higher the rate of depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Polito. “We’re just starting to tease out what exactly it is that they are doing online that may be connected with this.”
While researching for school papers online might not be a factor, Dr. Polito said links to anxiety and depression have been found in social media use and gaming.
Screens are a daily part of life and many teens need them for school work, so parents are facing an uphill battle, but Dr. Polito shared some steps parents can take to limit time and access. Parents can create rules for when teens can use certain devices, create device free zones such as the bedroom and dinner table, and most importantly, set a good example.
The challenge of limiting screen time may seem daunting on its own, but parents are dealing with the added trouble of the vaping phenomenon.
Dr. Daneil Brennan said he never intended to tackle the issue of vaping, but over time the community’s questions multiplied and their concern grew.
“Something popped about this time last year where it went from maybe once a month somebody had a question to once a week, then it was daily,” said Dr. Brennan.
After he decided to look into vaping, Dr. Brennan was shocked to see what devices were out there.
“I have to say that a lot of those things, if I had seen them just laying somewhere, I wouldn’t have known what it was because they looked like they were a computer device, a thumb drive. Literally some of them have usb chargers, so you just plug it into the computer while you’re studying,” said Dr. Brennan.
With tasty flavors and easily concealed devices that can be bought online, vaping has exploded among teens and college age students, due in part to the much higher nicotine levels found in vapes compared to a single cigarette.
“The nicotine is supercharged, so it’s really addictive,” said Dr. Brennan. “The teenage brain is still forming. You’re still forming your nerve endings, synapsis, junctions, and so literally under the age of mid-20s the nicotine can rewire your brain and make you crave it even more.”
Dr. Brennan said nicotine addiction can cause anxiety, mood changes, and attention problems.
“This can just exacerbate someone who’s already on the edge and it can really push them over. We’re seeing a lot of that. I don’t know if that is always the cause, but it’s become a question,” said Dr. Brennan.
His suggestion to parents was education. Dr. Brennan encouraged parents to learn what certain devices look like such as Juuls, Suorins, and the current favorite, Puff Bars, so they know when they find one in the house or car.
Dr. Jacqueline Kurta, a behavioral health therapist with UCSB’s Alcohol and Drug program, said vaping has become a “tremendous problem,” and has erased the gains made in reducing the use of cigarettes, becoming the largest single increase in any one type of substance use in a year seen in the history of the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study.
“One of the things that students tell us is the reason they have not talked about drug and alcohol use before, hands down the most prevalent reason is that nobody ever asked them,” said Dr. Kurta. “I’m here to say: please find a way.”
Ultimately, Drs. Brennan, Kurta, and Polito shared the same advice: engage in conversation.
“There are ways to engage in conversation without the accusatory tone, but more in a curious tone. Have them share with you what goes on around them, what goes on in their classrooms, what goes on in their schools,” said Dr. Kurta.
The roundtable was organized by Julie Nadel and Bobbie Rosenblatt of the Sansum Clinic Women’s Council.