According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is still the most commonly used and abused drug of choice for youth under the age of 21. In fact, the CDC estimates that 11 percent of alcohol consumed in the United States each year is consumed by youths between 12 and 20 years of age, and 90 percent of that occurs in the form of binge drinking. Despite being viewed as not carrying a great risk by roughly 50 percent of teenagers, the ramifications of underage drinking can lead to lifelong mental and physical issues. From sexual assaults to car accidents, stories of the negative impact drinking can have on youth are frequent in the news and pose a serious public health concern across the country.
The Institute for Social Research’s Monitoring the Future Survey states that while alcohol use among teens has dropped significantly since 1990, it is still the most popular substance of choice for teenagers. In 2018, 8 percent of 8th graders and 33 percent of 12th graders reported having consumed alcohol in the last 30 days. Of those, 2 percent of 8th graders and 19 percent of 12th graders reported having participated in binge drinking in the last two weeks, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion.
Dangers of Teen Drinking
Underage drinking poses many different risks and negative consequences to both teens and the people around them. Drinking alcohol can lead to poor decision making, as it impairs a person’s ability to reason and use their better judgment. This is an issue that is exaggerated more in teenagers than adults, as teens are unable to make mature decisions due to their still-incomplete brain development and lack of life experience. According to Dr. Kathleen Berger, professor of human development at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, “alcohol consumption is especially destructive during adolescence. The primary reason is that even in small doses, alcohol loosens inhibitions and impairs judgment — a dangerous effect in adolescents already psychologically off-balance because of ongoing physical, sexual and emotional changes.” This means an increase in the potential for teens to participate in risky behaviors, or be involved in an accident, if they have been drinking. Underage youth who drink alcohol have a higher risk of participating in unprotected sex—as well as either carrying out or being the victim of physical or sexual assault—than their non-drinking peers. Consumption of alcohol at an early age also increases a youth’s chances of developing alcoholism as an adult, with some studies showing that people who had their first drink before age 15 were four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
Another important consideration is the effect that alcohol use can have on a young person’s development. Key areas of the brain do not fully develop until adulthood, especially in the frontal lobe, which controls essential cognitive skills such as problem solving, memory, and judgment. Multiple studies have shown that alcohol use in a youth interferes with brain development, and if this interference is significant, it may be irreversible even if the youth stops drinking. Alcohol consumption also increases a youth’s chances of early death. Annually, the CDC estimates that underage drinking results in the deaths of more than 4,300 youths under age 21 in the U.S. every year. Of those deaths, 1,580 are due to motor vehicle crashes, 1,269 are from homicides, 245 are from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning, and 492 are from suicide.
There are many signs of alcohol abuse that parents can be on the lookout for in their teens. At school, uncharacteristic problems such as troublesome behaviors, a drop in grades, or a change in a teen’s peer group may be indicators of alcohol use. Periodic issues with attention and memory are also important to note, as well as any abnormal decline in their personal hygiene. At home, an increase in rebelliousness, sudden or unusual mood changes such as depression, irritability, and anger, or periods of lethargy and low energy can also be indicators. Parents should also look for signs that a teen is using alcohol they have found in the home, such as missing containers of alcohol, bottles of liquor being diluted from their normal strength, and finding empty alcohol containers in their teen’s room.
Treating Teen Alcohol Use Through Family and Community Approaches
Parents play a very significant role in shaping young people’s attitudes toward drinking and can have either a positive or negative influence, as research has shown that teens with parents who binge drink are far more likely to do so than a child whose parents do not. Parents can help their teens avoid problematic alcohol use by talking about the dangers that drinking poses to both their child’s development and safety. It is important to also serve as a positive role model in terms of safe alcohol consumption and sending clear messages about the importance of waiting until adulthood to drink. Getting to know your child’s friends, encouraging your child to participate in healthy and fun activities, supervising parties, and not making alcohol easily available in the home are all additional ways to help prevent underage drinking. Research shows that children whose parents have regular conversations with them about life in general, and are actively involved in their lives, are less likely to drink alcohol before adulthood.
Reducing underage drinking will require efforts both at home and throughout the community, in order to monitor the activities of youth and decrease youth access to alcohol. Recent publications by the Surgeon General outlined many strategies for the prevention of underage drinking on the community level, such as strict enforcement of minimum legal drinking and purchasing age laws, reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising, and the development of community-based programs to both prevent and treat underage drinking issues.
Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is an intensive family-and
community-based treatment for youth and adolescents. MST addresses several high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse. For more information, click here.