Underage Drinking: Understanding Health and Societal Risks

girl thinking about underage drinking

Underage drinking in the United States is a serious problem. For the most part, alcohol is the most commonly misused substance among teens. But the consequences of teenage drinking include various health and safety risks. 

The consequences of teenage drinking affect more than just the teenager. Everyone feels the underage drinking effects such as aggressive behaviors, violence, property damage, injuries, and death. However, understanding why do teens drink can motivate them to seek treatment.   

Teenage Drinking Statistics

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates 10 million teens suffer the consequences of teenage drinking. Of the teens who drink, almost 6.5 million are binge drinkers, and 2 million are heavy drinkers. 

  • By age 15, almost 30 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink.
  • By age 18, about 58 percent have had at least one drink.
  • In 2018, over 7 million people ages 12-20 drank more than “just a sip” in the last month.

Statistics on Binge Drinking in Teenagers

Teens age 12-20 drink 11 percent of alcohol in the U.S. Even though teens drink less often than adults, they drink more when they do drink. For this reason, teenagers consume 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking. Binge drinking for females is 4 drinks in 2 hours vs. 5 drinks or more for males. 

  • 4.3 million teenagers report binge drinking at least once the past month.
  • Over 860,000 report binge drinking 5 or more times in a month. 

Gender Differences in Underage Drinking

Although girls and boys face similar struggles as teens, they generally have different triggers and consequences. For instance, girls are less likely to binge drink or face alcohol-related legal issues. 

Why do teens drink, and why are the effects of underage drinking different for girls and boys? Girls may drink to cope with anger and frustration or to escape their problems. However, boys tend to drink because of peer pressure. 

What Are the Consequences of Teenage Drinking?

Teenagers lack the mental ability to understand the consequences of teenage drinking. In fact, they may not be aware of the consequences. The underage drinking effects can be immediate, such as brain damage and delays in puberty. Other consequences of teenage drinking include car crashes, sexual assaults, and fights.

Brain Damage

Underage drinking effects include brain damage. Heavy drinking as teenagers can lead to adults suffering from brain damage. The impact of this damage includes problems with memory, motor skills, and coordination. 

Car Crashes

Car crashes are another effect of underage drinking. Besides car crashes being the leading cause of teenage deaths, they affect drivers and passengers. Furthermore, almost a quarter of teenage car crashes involve alcohol. 

Sexual Activity and Assault

One of the many consequences of teenage drinking includes sexual assaults and risky sexual behaviors. Above all, underage drinking effects include the use of protection during sex. This leads to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. 

Death and the Consequences of Teenage Drinking

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) estimates that alcohol’s underage drinking effects of alcohol lead to almost 5,000 deaths a year. This number includes:

  • 1,580 deaths from vehicle crashes
  • 1,269 from homicides
  • Almost 250 from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning
  • About 500 suicides

Almost 188,000 teens suffer accidents and injuries requiring emergency room visits. 

Risk Factors and Why Do Teens Drink

The consequences of teenage drinking can affect adulthood. For example, people who start drinking as teenagers will likely develop substance use disorder (SUD) as adults. However, no one is safe from SUD. But, the following factors increase the risk. 

 Genetics

Teenagers with parents or close family members with SUD are more likely to suffer the consequences of teenage drinking. In fact, teens are 4 times more likely to develop SUD. When asking why do teens drink, in this case, it’s because they think it’s acceptable. 

Peer Pressure

Some teens whose parents are heavy drinkers may feel pressure from their parents to drink with them. Although the teen may know the consequences of teenage drinking, they may give in to the pressure. Other teens who live in unhealthy homes or struggle with self-confidence may give into peer pressure to escape reality.

Personality

Some teenagers are social butterflies and seem to always fit in. But, some teenagers struggle with social anxiety or other anxiety problems. So if you ask them, why do teens drink? Their answer will generally be because it makes me more social. 

As children become teens, it’s normal to seek independence, new challenges, and take risks. As a result, drinking alcohol is an attractive risk for many teens. Many teens want to try drinking but they don’t understand the consequences of teenage drinking. 

In addition, many teens have easy access to alcohol. Whether it’s through older friends or family members, it’s easy for them to get. In 2018, 96 percent of those aged 12-14 drank free alcohol in the past month. 

How Does Underage Drinking Affect the Family?

Typically teens don’t think about the consequences of teenage drinking or how it impacts their family and friends. But, underage drinking results in choices with ripple effects. These effects cause various problems and stress for loved ones. 

Problems families face because of underage drinking include:

  • Injuries
  • Accidents
  • Health problems
  • Legal issues
  • Educational issues
  • Turmoil in the home

Why Do Teens Drink? The Role of Parents

Parents play a big role in shaping their children’s beliefs on alcohol. However, these beliefs are not always positive. Parents can curb the consequences by doing the following:

  • Talking about the consequences of teenage drinking
  • If you drink, do it responsibly.
  • Be a positive role model.
  • Keep alcohol out of the house.
  • Know your children’s friends
  • Have daily conversations about life in general
  • Contact the parents of your teen’s friends to promote anti-drinking
  • Encourage healthy and fun activities.
  • Be actively involved in your children’s lives, no matter their age.

Warning Signs of Underage Drinking

The teen years are full of growth and change, including behavior changes. Some of these changes are typical; however, some signs may point toward alcohol use. Parents should pay close attention to warning signs, including:

  • Changes in mood such as irritability and anger
  • Problems in school
  • Being rebellious
  • New friends
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of self-care
  • Finding alcohol in teen’s belongings
  • Smelling alcohol on their breath
  • Issues concentrating or remembering
  • Coordination issues
  • Slurred speech

Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking is consuming alcohol quickly in a short period (about 2 hours). Typically for females, it’s 4 or more drinks. For more men, it’s 5 or more. However, for teens, it is generally 3 drinks in one sitting. 

Teens tend to get drunk quicker and stay drunk longer because their bodies can’t process alcohol as quickly as adults. Above all, teens don’t know their limits. For this reason, they risk drinking more than they can handle, resulting in alcohol poisoning or overdose

Alcohol poisoning leads to:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Impaired judgment
  • Irregular or slowed breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drop-in body temperature
  • Drop-in blood sugar levels
  • Seizures
  • Death

It’s important to know how to handle someone with alcohol poisoning. It could save a life. Whether you’re a parent or a teen, these steps are crucial. 

  • Do not leave the person alone. A person doesn’t “sleep off” alcohol poisoning.
  • Put the person on their side. This prevents choking if they vomit. 
  • Call 911 

Talking to Teens about Underage Drinking

As most parents know, it’s not easy talking to teens. It’s also very discouraging when they slam doors, sigh, and roll their eyes at the hint of communication. But, parents must find a way to talk to their teens. 

Whether it’s talking to teens for the first time or trying to stop a teen who’s already drinking, it’s never too early to start talking. Because of underage drinking effects such as adult SUD, it’s important to curb underage drinking.

Tips for discussing the consequences of teenage drinking include:

  • Choose the right time – The right time is not when teens are watching tv, chatting with friends, or when they’re mad at you. It’s important to choose a time when everyone is calm and free of alcohol. 
  • Find common ground – Don’t start the conversation off talking about underage drinking. Talk about common things like movies. Then parents can ease into the topic of alcohol and the consequences of teenage drinking.
  • Do not lecture – Allowing the teen to talk openly about their thoughts and beliefs is vital to keeping communication open. But, it’s important not to judge or be critical. So, even if parents disagree, make the teen feel heard. 
  • Ask why do teens drink – Asking teens why they think teens drink can open up discussions on handling issues such as peer pressure. 
  • Discuss reasons why not to drink – Because teens think they are invincible, talking about the consequences of teenage drinking may not discourage use. Instead, talk about how underage drinking effects include bad skin, weight gain, and bad breath. Also, talk about the embarrassing things alcohol makes people do. 
  • Emphasize the dangers of drinking and driving – Explaining the importance of not drinking and driving is super important. IF the teen goes to a party and has a drink, there is still time to make the right choice, like calling home to get a ride. However, choosing to drive home after drinking can result in a car crash. Maybe even a fatal crash. Ensure them, they can always call for a ride. 
  • Keep talking about the consequences of teenage drinking – Underage drinking is not a one-time discussion. Parents should make time to stay involved in their teen’s lives. Keep asking questions and setting good examples, and teens will hopefully make good choices. 

Does My Teen Need Alcohol Treatment?

The question many parents ask themselves is, does my teen need treatment for their drinking? If you have talked to your teen about drinking and they are unable to stop, then yes, they need treatment. If parents ignore the problem, it will only get worse and can affect adulthood. 

Teens who misuse alcohol may start to show signs of alcohol withdrawal when their not drinking. Furthermore, they may need to drink more to feel the same effects. These behaviors specifically can result in alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

If your teen appears to be struggling with any of these symptoms, they may need treatment. Professionals like ours at Sana Lake can guide parents through the evaluation process and treatment options to help their teen. By treating underage drinking early, it gives teens a chance at a bright and alcohol-free future. 

Treating Underage Drinking at Sana Lake

If your the parent of a teen or you’re a teen struggling with alcohol misuse, you are in the right place. Our amazing, caring staff is waiting to answer all your questions. By combining traditional and holistic therapies, we can help your teen successfully find a Life of Recovery. Contact us today to find out more.

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3725219/

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking

Article Reviewed by David Sherman, MD

David Sherman, MDDavid Sherman, MD is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (FASAM) and board certified in Addiction Medicine with the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He is a native Missourian and graduated medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Dr. Sherman completed a two-year fellowship in Addiction Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He leads a highly trained staff of master level certified addiction professionals. Men and women from all over Missouri and the United States come to Sana Lake Recovery Center to get the care they need and deserve.