Teen Drinking

Teen drinking can lead to serious problems.

Teen drinking is common, and many people think that it's normal or acceptable. However, teen bodies are still growing and drinking puts them at risk for many problems.

Teen Drinking by the Numbers

The following information is from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

  • Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking. This includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings.
  • Drinking is common among teens. Three-fourths of 12th graders, more than two-thirds of 10th graders, and about two in every five 8th graders have consumed alcohol.
  • Teen drinkers are getting younger. In 1965, the average age at first drink was 17. In 2003, it was 14.
  • Teen drinking is a risk factor for alcoholism. People who started to drink before the age of 15 were four times more likely to meet criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives
  • Many teens engage in binge drinking - consuming four to five drinks at one time. Nearly 1 million high school students in the U.S. are frequent binge drinkers.
  • Teens who binge frequently are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors, including marijuana use and sexual promiscuity.

Effects of Alcohol on Teens

Teenage brains are vulnerable since they are still forming. Researchers studying teen drinking have found that alcohol can cause changes in teenagers' brains, affecting a region that's responsible for memory and learning. Studies have shown that animals who were given alcohol during adolescence had long-lasting impairment. There is concern that the same may happen in people. It's possible that teen drinking may affect long-term thinking, memory, and ability to learn. Just like adults, teens can develop liver damage due to drinking. Elevated liver enzymes, which indicate liver damage, have been found in some teens who drink. Overweight teens, who may already have liver damage due to obesity, seem to be particularly at risk. Doctors also think that drinking alcohol before or during puberty may affect growth and development. Animal studies show that alcohol can interfere with normal maturation of the reproductive system.

Why Teens Drink

There can be many factors that push teens into drinking. Many start simply because they feel that "everyone else is doing it." Peer pressure is strong and teens have a driving need to be accepted .

  • Teens tend to be risk-takers. Some experts think that there is an aspect of normal brain development that leads teens to try risky behaviors. For some teens, drinking is part of this process.
  • Teens may see drinking as a pleasurable activity. Teens who have good expectations about alcohol are more likely to drink.
  • Teens tend to have high tolerance. Teens often can drink more than adults before they begin to feel ill from alcohol. On the other hand, they seem to be more sensitive to the good feelings that drinking can bring.

Risk Factors

Some teens are at higher risk than others of having problems with alcohol. Risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of alcoholism
  • Having psychological problems or behavior problems, which may include being disruptive, hyperactive and aggressive, or being depressed, withdrawn or anxious
  • Coming from a family that views drinking positively
  • For girls, having an older or adult boyfriend

Consequences of Teen Drinking

Drinking impairs judgment and can lead to dangerous behaviors.

  • Drunk driving: Even though 21 is the legal drinking age, many younger drivers involved in fatal crashes have elevated blood alcohol levels. In 1995, 20% of drivers age 15-20 involved in fatal crashes had been drinking.
  • Risky sex: Teens appear to be more likely to have sex if they have been drinking, and more likely to have unsafe sex. Alcohol use also increases the risk of forced sexual activity.

Help for Teen Drinkers

Teens who realize they have a problem with drinking need to get help. The first step may be talking to a parent or other trusted adult, who can help the teen get medical care. Teens who are trying to quit drinking should avoid other kids associated with drinking activities. They need to substitute other activities and establish associations with non-drinking friends. Quitting isn't easy. Understanding family members may help. If you're a teen who wants to stop drinking, talk to parents, friends, your priest or other clergy, or another adult you trust. Let them know you're ready to stop, and that you need their help.

Teen Drinking