Miley Cyrus, Salvia and Parenting in the YouTube Age

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Good parenting seems to get new enemies all the time: new drugs, new media, new "role models." This month's culprits: salvia divinorum, YouTube, Miley Cyrus.

The young songstress and provocateur was recently caught on video smoking a bong and quickly dissolving into giggles, a conspicuous lack of coordination, and patter that suggested she was hallucinating. Watchers have concluded that she was probably smoking salvia -- also known as Magic Mint or Sally D -- the most potent psychedelic herb in the world, which happens to only last 15 minutes or so and is undetectable with normal drug tests. In addition to those and a host of other interesting properties, salvia has one that parents might find even more terrifying: It's legal. Happy Holidays indeed.

If you can't wrap your head around that, you're not alone. Many states have banned or regulated the drug, and the video has sparked more talk of similar moves, but the federal government is silent. In any case, it is readily available on the Internet and in head shops, and some reports indicate an explosion in sales following the Cyrus video -- think of it as a "cool, Miley's doing it" effect. And it's not just her; there are scores of videos of young people trashed on salvia on YouTube. We have to face facts: parenting 2.0 isn't just harder, it's different, and the Internet can sometimes be a scarier and more detrimental environment than even the worst street corner.

And Miley's video doesn't make warning kids about the dangers of this drug any easier. She takes a hit, laughs, thinks some other guy is her boyfriend, and wants "some more of that s**t." But the video, like many others on the Web, does not begin to tell the story of salvia divinorum. This is a powerful hallucinogen used by the Mazatec Indians in Mexico for religious rituals going back hundreds of years. It is not a recreational drug; it is not a social drug; it is not a "fun" drug. It is a dissociative psychedelic that can inspire a total separation from reality, terrifying visions, and a feeling that one is dying. On the other hand, it can also inspire very deep spiritual experiences, which is why it has been used so long in religious rituals.

This whole flap does a real disservice to young people: they see that something is "fun;" they find out that it's legal -- and then they end up in a dissociative hallucination that resembles nothing so much as an episode of extreme psychosis, pleasant or unpleasant.

Now, I'm not naïve about drugs, and I don't profess to know if people should or shouldn't take salvia. What I do know is that the adolescent brain -- even Miley Cyrus' brain -- is still developing, and is emphatically not the proper target for any hallucinogen, especially one that may cause immense psychic stress. This is doubly true for adolescents diagnosed with or at risk for psychiatric disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia; for them, hallucinogens can do outsized harm. Sadly, these same adolescents are the ones getting the message that salvia is a party drug -- and their developing brains are also prone to make reckless decisions.

This might seem like an impossible situation: images of a popular young star appearing to have fun while on a legal substance propagated over a vast communications network that the younger generation considers its birthright and raison d'etre. What is a parent to do?

The tools of a parent aren't numerous, but used effectively they can be very powerful. So you do what you can: supervise as best as possible; this not only gives you a window into what's going on in his or her world, but also lets your kid know that you're interested and involved. When children know you care, they'll care about what you have to say.

This brings us to the next point: have a dialogue, be forthright about your concerns, and make sure you listen as much as you talk. In an uncertain and occasionally scary world, a trusting, understanding connection between you and your child can make all the difference. Remember: you can't get rid of salvia, YouTube, or Miley Cyrus. And if a kid wants to play with fire because of poor information and bad role models, there may be little you can do about changing their desires. But you can let your children know that you don't want that for them, and why. If you can make sense to them, they can make the sensible decision.

Alan Ravitz, MD, MS, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute.

For more on navigating the world of adolescence and drugs, go to childmind.org, which offers parenting advice and a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.