Emerging risky behaviours in children

Drug (pill) testing at music festivals

Music festivals, electronic dance music events, live concerts and raves are often common environments for young people to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. While most likely don’t use drugs frequently, they may opt to take drugs recreationally at these events.

Did you know?

52% of festival goers stated they had used illicit drugs at one or more of the festivals they have recently been to.

Approximately 70% of festival goers believe that a police presence or getting caught is not a deterrent for drug use at music festivals.

Pill testing at festivals is a harm reduction strategy which allows people who are already in possession of drugs to test the chemical substance and find out what is actually present in what they were planning to consume. It has been heavily researched and is a well-known strategy to reduce the risk of harm from drug use in over 20 countries worldwide. It communicates the risk around drug use and helps create informed decisions when taking drugs. 

From a health perspective, it is naïve to think that young people will not be experimenting with drugs at these events so the principle of harm reduction becomes more important. While not all young people will refrain from taking drugs, harm reduction ensures that any individual harm associated with taking drugs at music festivals is minimised whenever and wherever possible. 

DanceWize NSW is an initiative under the NSW Users and AIDS Association which aims to increase the safety of festival goers. See the DanceWize website for more information on their services or to find out which festivals they will attend.

See the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website for more information about your child staying safe at music festivals. 

Drink spiking

Drink spiking occurs when a substance such as alcohol or another drug is added to a drink without the knowledge of the person consuming it. The most common form of drink spiking is adding more alcohol to a drink. 

People may choose to spike a drink as a practical joke with unintentional outcomes, to purposely cause harm, steal possessions and money or to sexually assault somebody. 

Drink spiking can happen anywhere, even if your child is not intending to drink alcohol. It is most common at parties and out at nightclubs and bars. All forms of drink spiking are illegal. 

The best way for your child to avoid drink spiking is to: 

  • stay alert when drinking out in the community, for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
  • buy, open and pour their own drinks 
  • do not leave drinks unattended 
  • avoid sharing drinks 
  • if drinks do not taste as expected, do not drink any more.

Teach your children to understand the signs and symptoms of drink spiking. These include feeling nauseous, drowsy or dizzy (especially if they are not drinking alcohol or having much to drink), passing out or waking up confused. They should always remain with friends, find a safe location or call a parent or carer if they are concerned about drink spiking. 

Needle spiking

Needle spiking, also known as spiking injections, is a recent trend in nightclubs and pubs which involves injecting an unsuspecting person with a drug via a sharp implement or needle. It was first reported in Europe and the UK but since early 2023, there have been reported cases in Australia. 

Similar to drink spiking, the effects of needle spiking are largely dependent on what substance is actually injected. Signs and symptoms which could be apparent with needle spiking include confusion, nausea and vomiting, loss of motor control and loss of consciousness. 

While needle spiking is a relatively new phenomenon, it is not as prevalent as drink spiking. If you suspect your child or adolescent has come home with a needle spiking injury or has a pinprick of blood on their clothes, call Tripe Zero (000) and request an Ambulance. Once any medical emergencies have been attended to, look to file a Police Report with your child.  

Nitrous oxide (nangs)

Nitrous Oxide is an inhalant which depresses the central nervous system. It is a colourless and tasteless gas which usually comes in a cartridge called a bulb or is inhaled via a balloon. It is also referred to as laughing gas, NOS, nangs, whippet and balloons. 

While only 1.7% of people in Australia use this substance as a recreational drug, the chemical is more commonly used in baking to whip cream, in air canisters to dust keyboards and as a medical anaesthetic.

Short term effects of nitrous oxide use

  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Loss of blood pressure 
  • Possible frostbite or freeze burns to the hands, airways, nose and mouth when inhaling from bulbs 
  • Possible burns from exploding canisters 
  • Hypoxia (not getting enough oxygen) 
  • Possible heart attack 

Long term effects of nitrous oxide use

  • Memory loss 
  • Brain or spinal cord damage 
  • Loss of bladder control (incontinence)  
  • Numbness in extremities 
  • Reduction in immune response 
  • Reduction in reproductive health 

If you think a young person has suffered from the effects of nitrous oxide inhalation, call Triple Zero (000) immediately.

Steroid use and other performance enhancing drugs

As your child progresses through adolescence, they often have an increasing pressure to perform in sports or to look a certain way aesthetically. It’s important for parents and carers to discuss how to perform well and be healthy inside and out safely whilst playing sports or lifting weights. As mentioned in the drivers of risk taking behaviour, adolescents usually see the reward of a behaviour before fully assessing the risk. 

Anabolic steroids are scientifically formulated chemicals to mimic the natural human hormone, testosterone. This is the primary hormone in males which can alter the development of body hair, sex organ production, sex drive and a deepening of the voice. Its use in sports performance is linked to the improvement of muscle and tissue repair and growth.  

Defining anabolic androgenic steroids

  • Anabolic: relates to tissue building and muscle development
  • Androgenic: relates to male producing hormones

Steroids can be taken in a range of different ways. Most commonly they are injected intramuscularly but can also be taken as an oral tablet or applied as a cream on the surface of the skin. 

While steroid use is not overly common in Australia with 0.8% of the population reporting any use over their lifetime, the negative health effects can be extensive. 

Short term effects of steroid use

  • Acne 
  • Increased aggression and mood changes known as “roid rage” 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Overly competitive nature

Long term effects of steroid use

  • Stunting of growth in children and adolescents 
  • Heart problems including abnormal rhythms or risk of heart attacks 
  • Increased cholesterol 
  • Kidney and liver damage leading to tumours 
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin) 
  • Reduced immune function 
  • Infertility 

Other side effects specific to males

  • Baldness 
  • Shrinking testicles 
  • Enlarged prostate 
  • Development of breast tissue 

Other side effects specific to females

  • Hair growth on the face, back and bottom 
  • Hair loss 
  • Reduced breast size 
  • Enlarged clitoris 
  • Problems with the menstrual cycle 

Other performance enhancing drugs 

Steroids are often the most recognised performance enhancing drug, but there are many others which can improve physical performance in sports. Depending on the sport, certain substances are used to stimulate bodily functions, depress or slow down the central nervous system or help with muscle growth through hormone manipulation. 

Legal and safe performance enhancers include 

  • Creatine: a naturally occurring compound which is also sold over the counter to improve short-term, high-intensity performance. 
  • Caffeine: is naturally found in coffee beans and can help improve performance and reduce the rate of perceived exertion for endurance, high-intensity and power sports. See more on the Sports drinks and caffeine section to find out what may be safe levels of caffeine for children. 

If your child wishes to utilise any of these aspects of sports nutrition, you should contact a qualified Sports Dietitian.  

Illegal or banned performance enhancers include

  • Anabolic-androgenic steroids 
  • Androgen receptor modulators 
  • Stimulants, such as amphetamines 
  • Peptide hormones or human growth hormones 
  • Tanning agents like Melanotan 

Visit the Sports Integrity Australia website if you would like to read more information on which substances are permitted in Australian sports. 

Keeping your child safe at schoolies

Schoolies week is the time at the end of high school graduation when teenagers enjoy a week-long holiday after the hard work of their exams. It is often the first time a young adult will take a holiday away from the family and is a great opportunity to form lifelong friendships, create memories and celebrate their achievements before heading off into paid employment.  

As a parent, it may seem daunting that your child is going to attend a larger celebration at a known location. Below are some tips to help stay on top of information before and during your child’s trip. Another alternative is to discuss with your child and their friend’s parents to go away on holiday with a smaller group to a quieter location.

Top tips for parents of teenagers leaving for schoolies: 

Have an open conversation with your child before they leave

Understand their expectations of the trip and express yours so there is a level of compromise. Come from a place of understanding so that your child is more likely to open up and discuss certain topics or reach out if they do need you.

Discuss scenarios which they may be presented with

What to do in a situation where someone crashes their party, insists on coming home with them, they get stranded on a night out or a fight (verbal or physical) happens between their friendship group.

Stay in contact

Let your child know you are available to call or text anytime, get in contact with the accommodation, have your child’s friend's numbers written down before they go and create a parent’s group chat of the children who are away.

Remind your child of the laws

It is worth discussing the laws that surround alcohol and other drugs, including age and location restrictions so they are informed about their choices. Refer to the Alcohol and drugs page for more information.

Discuss the effects of alcohol in a reasonable way

Reminding your child that they should have food alongside or before they start drinking, how they should pace themselves with the number of drinks (especially for spirits) and that their reaction time and coordination will be heavily affected meaning normal day-to-day tasks will become more difficult to do.

Discuss the importance of their friendship group

Your child’s friends are the most important people they will be around whilst away. They have the ability to look after each other in certain situations and create safety around leaving establishments with someone that they know. The more they do together, the more likely they will stay safe as a group.

Energy drinks and caffeine levels

Energy drinks have become a popular beverage of choice among children and young adults. While they are often consumed to increase alertness and a perceived ‘boost of energy’, energy drinks can have a range of different ingredients and high levels of caffeine.

Adolescents under 14 are not advised to consume caffeine. For teenagers aged 14-17, intake should be 100mg of caffeine or below.

The main ingredients in energy drinks

  • Caffeine: a naturally occurring central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that helps reduce drowsiness. 
  • Taurine: naturally occurring in the body and foods containing protein. It is used for energy production in the body 
  • Ginseng: a traditional root plant that may help cognition and anti-inflammation  
  • Sugar: the most basic form of simple carbohydrates. Some energy drinks have very high levels of sugar content. 

The biggest concern for children and young adults’ energy drink consumption surrounds the level of sugar and caffeine within products. Some products contain up to 20 teaspoons of sugar and up to 300mg of caffeine. As teenagers have relatively smaller body weight than adults, the effects of caffeine become heightened, including feeling jittery, nervous, irritable or anxious.  

Caffeine is designed to keep people awake by inhibiting the chemical process to make us tired. As teenagers need a higher level of good quality sleep, the impact of caffeine (especially in the afternoon) can create more negative health effects with being overtired or drowsy in the coming days. Caffeine in adolescents is then seen as a solution to a problem it may have helped create. 

Approximately 15% of Australian adolescents are regular coffee drinkers and 8% consume energy drinks weekly

Cannabis (marijuana) and edible cannabis gummies

Opposed to some public perception, cannabis (marijuana) use is not a completely risk-free drug. It is the most common illegal substance used in Australia and is often smoked in a handmade cigarette or incorporated into food such as cookies or lollies. 

Other names for cannabis use: weed, pot, green, ganga, bud, hash, cones, weed cookies, weed brownies, weed gummies 

The main compounds in cannabis include

  • THC: THC is the chemical in cannabis which reacts in the body to create the feeling of being high. This may be an increase in euphoria, sociability or spontaneous laughter
  • CBD: Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second most active ingredient derived from hemp plants. It does not create the high which THC is known for

Edible cannabis products look much like regular gummy bears, chocolate bars, brownies or even sodas. They are infused with the psychoactive part of the cannabis plant; THC. The THC present in edible products are highly variable and are usually much higher in these products.  

As children and adolescents usually have a smaller body than adults, the effects of THC infused products can be more pronounced. This can include suffering from symptoms such as memory impairment, slower reflexes, increase heart rate, paranoia and, in more severe cases of THC poisoning, seizures and comas. 

The risks associated with cannabis edibles fit into one of two categories: 

  • intentional consumption- when children and adolescents choose to knowingly consume a cannabis product without an understanding of the levels of THC present
  • unintentional consumption- when young children or adolescents consume edible cannabis products unknowingly as they look like regular products they may enjoy, for example chocolate bars. 

It is important to know the laws around cannabis use and possession in Australia. While it is illegal, if someone is to store any edible cannabis products in their home, it should be treated in the same way as a medication or poisons and kept out of sight and reach of children. 

See Medication safety for more information. 

Cannabis Laws

In all States and Territories in Australia, excluding the Australian Capital Territory, it is currently illegal to use, possess, grow or sell cannabis in any form.

Safety around being online

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024