The Real Consequences: How Underage Drinking Affects Teens
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Underage Drinking Statistics
Statistics show that underage drinking is widespread and affects young people from all walks of life. Here are some key statistics about underage drinking:
According to Monitoring the Future’s Key Findings in 2022:2
- In 2022, 52% of 12th-grade students used alcohol within the last 12 months
- 29.6% of 12th-grade students said they've been drunk within the past 12 months
- Levels of alcohol significantly increased between 2021 and 2022, returning to pre-pandemic levels
The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey also showed that among high school students, during the past 30 days:3
- 29% drank alcohol
- 14% binge drank
- 5% of drivers drove after drinking alcohol
- 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), studies from 2019 also report that:4
- About 24.6% of teenagers ages 14 to 15 reported having at least one drink in their lifetime
- 7.0 million individuals ages 12 to 20 drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the past month
- Youth ages 12 to 20 drink 4% of all alcohol consumed in the United States
Negative Consequences of Underage Drinking
Although much of the focus tends to be on the legal aspects of underage alcohol use, significant health issues are also a concern because teenage brains are still developing.
Young people are still learning reasonable judgment and how to handle peer pressure. Introducing alcohol during this life stage adds an extra challenge. This makes it even more difficult to make good decisions.
A 2022 Youth Risk Behavior Survey sampled students from 6th grade to 12th grade. The results showed that:1
- Alcohol consumption increases steadily with each grade level
- Those who drink alcohol are more likely to vape and smoke marijuana
- 46% of respondents engaged in binge drinking the past 30 days
The most serious health effect related to underage drinking is death. When anyone drinks excessively, it’s dangerous. The risk for fatalities is higher when young people drink.
Causes of death included:
- Vehicle crashes
- Alcohol poisoning
- Non-vehicle accidents
Here are seven other negative consequences of underage drinking:
1. Academic Problems
Academic problems are another consequence of underage drinking. Underage drinkers are more likely to:
- Miss classes and work
- Fall behind on schoolwork due to study disruptions
- Perform poorly on exams and assignments
- Develop sleep problems, such as insomnia or oversleeping
2. Health Risk Factors
Heavy, excessive drinking can lead to health problems in people of all ages. However, it is especially dangerous for younger people because:
- It affects brain development. The hippocampus is also smaller in people who drank heavily at a younger age
- Young drinkers have a higher risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, hepatitis, high blood pressure, and anemia
- Heavy drinking also affects bone density
- Underage drinkers may also experience mental health effects
3. Risk of Developing Alcoholism
The effects of underage drinking don’t stop when a person turns 21. If left unmanaged, drinking from a young age can lead to alcoholism (alcohol use disorder) over time.
Even those who don’t develop an addiction have a greater risk of developing a drinking problem later in life. They’re also likely to develop a substance abuse problem as an adult (including drug use).
4. Accidents and Injuries
Young people are still learning how to navigate adult responsibilities, such as driving a car. Drinking alcohol during this learning phase is extremely dangerous. Underage drinkers are more prone to certain accidents, such as:
- Automobile collisions
- DUI-related deaths
- Serious or fatal head injuries
5. Relationship Problems
Underage drinking is also linked to relationship problems because alcohol abuse affects entire families. For instance, drinking can cause arguments between parents and children, leading to strained family relationships.
Underage drinking tends to be a social activity, but this doesn’t mean young drinkers are forming strong friendships. Many underage drinkers struggle to bond with their peers. They may also feel isolated and lonely.
6. Risky Behaviors and Sexual Activity
Part of growing up is learning good judgment, but alcohol impairs judgment. Underage drinkers are more likely to:
- Engage in risky behavior
- Have unprotected sex
- Behave violently or aggressively
- Be the instigator or a victim of sexual assault
- Have a higher risk for unintended pregnancy
7. Legal and Money Problems
The physical, mental, and emotional health issues related to underage drinking are extreme. But there are also legal consequences.
Drinking before the age of 21 in the United States is a crime. The bad choices a person makes when under the influence of alcohol can also be considered crimes.
Underage drinkers are more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, drunk driving, assault, and vandalism. Even if the younger person manages to get their alcohol use under control, the legal consequences of underage drinking can be life-long problems.
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How to Prevent Underage Drinking
If you’re concerned about someone drinking underage, you must seek help from a qualified medical professional.
Here are some tips on how to prevent underage drinking:
Talk to Your Children
Start talking to your children about alcohol at an early age. Explain the risks and legal consequences of underage drinking. Keep an open conversation with them so they feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns.
Set a Good Example
Be a role model for your children by not drinking alcohol yourself, or at least drinking responsibly. Show them that it’s possible to have fun without alcohol.
Monitor Your Child’s Activities
Know who your child is hanging out with and what they’re doing. Make sure you know where they’re going and when they’ll be back. Check in with them when they’re out so you know they’re safe.
Give your children other activities to do instead of drinking alcohol. For instance, suggest they participate in sports, volunteer, or join a club. These will keep them busy and reduce the chances of them engaging in underage drinking.
Learn about the effects of alcohol on young people and how to recognize signs of alcohol abuse. This will help you better understand the risks of underage drinking and how to prevent it.
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Why Do Teenagers Drink Alcohol?
Underage drinking occurs when a person consumes alcohol before the legal drinking age of 21 in the United States.
Here are five reasons why a teenager may drink underage:
1. Behavioral Factors
Experimentation, rebellion, peer pressure, and socializing can all contribute to underage drinking. Many young people are also preoccupied with how they look and how their peers perceive them. This can lead to drinking to fit in.
2. Family Influences
Young people are more likely to drink if at least one parent or guardian in their family has a history of alcohol use or alcoholism. If parents don’t teach their children about the negative effects of alcohol, they’re also more likely to drink underage.
3. Media Influences
The media often portrays drinking as fun, which leads teens to think it is "okay" to drink. They may also drink underage to feel more grown-up.
4. Personality Characteristics
Teen drinking has also been linked to mental health disorders, such as depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
5. Emotional Factors
Some common emotional factors that contribute to underage drinking include:
- To reduce tension, worries, and stress
- To feel powerful and courageous
- To fit in with others (peer pressure)
- To improve confidence and feel more powerful
- To fulfill curiosity about the feelings of alcohol
- To feel more grown-up
Underage drinking is a serious problem with long-term consequences. It can lead to physical and mental health issues and legal troubles. While underage drinking poses a significant risk to young people, there are several ways that parents and other adults can help prevent it.
If you’re concerned about someone drinking underage, talk to them openly and provide alternatives. You may also consider professional help if needed.
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- “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Summary of Findings for 2022.” Market Street Research.
- Miech et al. “National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2022: Secondary School Students.” Monitoring the Future, 2023.
- “Underage Drinking.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- “2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ).
- “Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- "Most reported substance use among adolescents held steady in 2022." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022.