Underage drinking is not a new development in the United States. Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking, including 1,900 from motor vehicle collisions, 1,600 homicides, 300 suicides, and hundreds from injuries sustained through reckless alcohol consumption. According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there were an estimated 10 million underage drinkers in 2010. Among those 10 million, roughly 5.5 million were binge drinkers and 2 million were heavy drinkers. These statistics are astounding.
The truth is that alcohol consumption has become normalized within the United States to the degree that many youth and young adults are unaware of the severe harm that drinking can cause. Alcohol abuse carries serious consequences, and when teens consume alcohol, they put their lives in real danger. Part of the problem is that alcohol has become seen as a rite of passage, with many underage individuals first drinking as a way to fit in and become accepted into their peer groups. One of the most significant issues is that teens are more likely to start abusing alcohol because of the way their brain works compared to adults. Teens are vulnerable to binge drinking because their impulse control has not fully matured. Here are some facts about teen and underage drinking that may surprise you.
- Alcohol abuse is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic costs in 2010
- Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic costs in 2010.
- Individuals aged 12 to 20 years old drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. each year.
- On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per occasion than adult drinkers.
- In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency room visits for underage drinking.
- The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students in the past 30 days, 30% drank some amount of alcohol, 14% binge drank, 6% drove after drinking alcohol, and 17% rode with someone who had been drinking alcohol.
- In 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 19% of youth aged 12 to 20 years old drank alcohol with 12% reporting binge drinking in the past 30 days.
- By age 15, roughly 33% of adolescents have had at least one drink. By age 18, the number increases to approximately 60%.
- Adolescents who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol later in their lives.
The Dangers of Underage Drinking
Alcohol consumption isn’t healthy for anyone, but alcohol is especially risky for youth. Impaired brain development, risky behavior, and the chances of developing alcoholism are all likely consequences when someone engages in underage drinking. Here is why:
Research has shown that brain development is a process that continues well into a person’s twenties. One of the last parts to grow and fully mature is the frontal lobe, responsible for impulse control and critical decision-making capabilities. Early exposure to alcohol in a person’s teens can bring serious harm to this development with the risk of stunting its growth. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, the body and brain are not as equipped to handle the effects of alcohol as they will be later in life. With poor impulse control, it’s no surprise that on average, underage drinkers consume more alcohol per occasion than older drinkers.
Heavy drinking at any age creates noticeable changes in the size and structure of the brain, but for underage drinkers, these changes are more pronounced and can permanently impair its growth. Alcohol consumption in youth can affect neuropsychological performance, damage growth, and alter blood flow in the brain. In a comprehensive 2000 study on 33 alcohol-dependent teens, researchers found that the subjects performed significantly worse on verbal and nonverbal memory tests than the control group after nearly a month of sobriety. Another study using similar methods over a longer term found that after four years, subjects with a history of substance abuse still performed worse on attention tasks and had poorer visuospatial abilities.
Research has also shown that the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory formation and learning, is significantly smaller in youths with Alcohol Use Disorders than in those of a control group. The earlier a person develops an AUD, the smaller the hippocampus. Findings also suggest that the more prolonged a person’s drinking, the smaller the hippocampus of that individual. Brain functioning overall is also dampened, with research showing that crucial brain regions do not receive adequate oxygenated blood for sustained performance on tasks in individuals with an alcohol use disorder.
Physical Dangers of Underage Drinking
Underage drinking possesses more than just a risk of brain damage. The likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, injury, and death are also greatly increased. Alcohol impairs judgment and can lead to poor decision making such as drinking and driving, unprotected sexual activity, and violent behavior. Drinking can also increase the likelihood of getting in trouble with the law. Drinking between the ages of 18 and 25 is the highest age demographic for problem drinking, with nearly 42% admitting to binge drinking at least once a month. Here are some startling figures about the dangers of underage drinking.
- Roughly one-third of drivers aged 21 to 24 who died in a car crash in 2009 had a blood alcohol level that was over the legal limit.
- Each year, approximately 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
- Alcohol abuse can lead to delayed puberty and endocrine disorders during puberty.
- Binge drinkers are eight times more likely than other college students to miss classes, fall behind in schoolwork, become injured, and damage property.
- Girls are more likely to admit to drinking to escape problems or cope with frustration and anger while boys are more likely to admit to drinking due to peer pressure.
- College students between the ages of 18 and 22 are more likely to report binge drinking than non-students of the same age.
Behavioral and Academic Problems
Adolescents who first start binge drinking are likely to have sudden changes in their behavior such as in mood, sleeping hours, and school performance. Some of these behaviors are normal changes for teenagers, but it’s important to keep a vigilant eye and look out for significant changes. Drinking can cause your teen to become cold and distant, aggressive and angry, or overly touchy and joyous. Drinking can also lead to academic issues such as not completing homework or receiving failing grades. These are all signs of a potential problem and should be addressed immediately.
Drinking can also lead to teens losing interest in extracurricular activities and hobbies. Young people that develop an alcohol problem are less likely to care about performing well in sports, engaging in community service, reading, and other hobbies and activities that they may have been into before. Once alcohol addiction takes hold, it becomes difficult to focus on anything other than getting drunk, which winds up hampering the ability to perform well in all other aspects of life.
Recognizing and Treating Alcohol Poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is a serious consequence of binge drinking that can result in unconsciousness, liver damage, brain damage, and even death. Drinking more alcohol than your body can absorb in a short period is ill-advised. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can affect your heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and gag reflex. Any person with alcohol poisoning requires medical attention right away. Learning to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning can be the difference between life and death. If you suspect that a person has had too much to drink, keep them away from any more alcohol and monitor their condition. Here are the most noticeable signs of alcohol poisoning to watch out for:
- Low Body Temperature (Hypothermia)
- Slow Breathing (Less than eight breaths a minute)
- Pale or Blue Tinged Skin
- Passing Out (Unconsciousness)
- Awake but Unresponsive
Although many young adults drink responsibly, binge drinking is still a common problem. Teens as young as 13 admit to binge drinking, with that number growing into mid-adolescence and peaking during the 18 to 25 age range. Here’s what you should do in the case of an alcohol poisoning emergency:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Never leave someone suffering from alcohol poisoning alone to sleep it off.
- Gently turn the person on their side and use a pillow to keep their head propped up.
- Stay with the person until medical help arrives.
Signs of Underage Drinking
Teenagers are naturally secretive and selective about what they will share with you, so it’s no surprise that they will do their best to keep their drinking from you if possible. To tell if a teen is engaging with underage drinking, look out for closely for the following signs.
Inability to Concentrate
A common side effect of alcohol abuse is difficulties with concentrating and memory formation. When someone is under the influence, they may get easily distracted or have trouble staying with a single task for too long. They may also have difficulty recalling memories and recent events. However, these problems could even extend outside of drinking occasions. Teens who are binge drinking can experience long-term cognitive impairments to memory that last a lifetime while they may also experience brain fog in the days following binge drinking.
Switching Friend Groups/Secretive Behavior
Another sign of alcohol abuse in adolescents is changing friend groups dramatically. This can naturally happen in high school, but if your teen starts hanging out with a rougher crowd or partying peers, they could be exposed to underage drinking. They will also become more tight-lipped about what they are doing with their new friend group. They may make up stories as to where they are and with whom they are hanging out with.
Behavioral or Academic Problems
Drinking can cause your teen to become cold and distant, aggressive and angry, or overly touchy and joyous. Drinking can also lead to academic issues such as not completing homework or receiving failing grades. These are all signs of a potential problem and should be addressed immediately.
Other signs of underage drinking include problems concentrating, brain fog, loss of interest in hobbies and activities, returning home late or past curfew inebriated, empty bottles within the car or room, and chronic lying.
Talking to Teens About Responsible Drinking
As a parent, grandparent, caretaker, or role model, you can have a major impact on a teens decision to use drugs and alcohol. One study reported that adolescents from families with alcohol problems were less likely to abuse alcohol themselves if they felt a sense of control over their environments, had good coping skills, and highly organized families. Other researchers found that things such as preserving family rituals, establishing daily routines, and celebrating holidays could also have a positive influence on steering kids clear of alcohol abuse. It may be difficult, but speaking honestly and openly about drinking is important for lowering the risk of alcohol abuse later in life.
Start the conversation early, before they have a chance to learn about alcohol from another source. Don’t be dishonest about drinking; it’s important that teens feel they are being treated with respect and openness. Don’t use scare tactics, but give them an accurate picture of what alcohol can do and what kind of destruction alcohol abuse can cause. You’ll also want to invite your teen to share their feelings with you at any time and that you’ll be receptive, without judgment or lectures. Here are some guidelines to follow when speaking with your teen about alcohol abuse.
- Ask open-ended questions and encourage them to do the same
- Talk openly about your family history and be open about your own experiences
- Set clear expectations about the consequences for underage drinking
- Control your emotions
- Ask about your teenager’s friends and express an interest getting to know them better
- Debunk myths about drinking
- Ask for your teen’s views about drinking
- Set an example
If you believe your loved one is suffering from alcohol abuse, or is using substances they shouldn’t be, we are here for you. At Landmark Recovery, we are experts in the field of drug and alcohol recovery. We have various programs including IOP, SMART recovery, guided meditation, partial hospitalization and more. Along with our various programs, we also have blog content like alcohol recovery quotes that can help with motivation. If you are concerned about your loved one, it is a good idea to take the steps to help them get better. With Landmark Recovery, we can help you take those steps to help get them back on track.