Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is when someone drinks alcohol before the legal age (21 in the United States). There are short- and long-term consequences associated with teen drinking. For example, drinking before the legal age can lead to car accidents, violence, poor sexual judgment, alcohol poisoning, and death.
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Why Do Teenagers Drink Alcohol?

Underage drinking occurs when a person consumes alcohol before the legal drinking age, which is 21 in the United States.

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There are many reasons why a teenager may drink underage, including:

  • 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 they are perceived by peers. This can lead to drinking in order to fit in.
  • 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 do not teach their children about the negative effects of alcohol, they are also more likely to drink underage.
  • 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.
  • Personality characteristics — teen drinking has also been linked to mental health disorders, such as depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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Emotional Factors of Underage Drinking

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
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How to Prevent Underage Drinking

If you are consuming alcohol before age 21, or you are concerned about someone drinking underage, you should address the issue and seek help from a qualified medical professional. It is also important to follow these tips to help reduce underage drinking:

  • Talk to your teen about the dangers of alcohol consumption
  • Keep an open conversation about peer pressure
  • Make sure they understand the negative effects of alcohol and drug use
  • Talk about the issues of sexual assault and how they relate to alcohol use
  • Build a strong relationship with your child so they feel comfortable talking about alcohol-related situations
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Effects & Negative Consequences of Underage Drinking

Although much of the focus tends to be on the legal aspects of underage alcohol use, there are also significant health issues associated with it because teenage brains are still developing.

Young people are still learning reasonable judgment and how to handle peer pressure. Introducing alcohol during this stage of life adds an extra challenge; making it even more difficult to make good decisions.

The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days:

  • 30% drank some amount of alcohol
  • 14% binge drank
  • 6% drove after drinking alcohol
  • 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol

There are both short- and long-term consequences associated with teen drinking. For example, drinking before the legal age can lead to car accidents, violence, poor sexual judgment, and even death. Other effects of underage drinking include:

Alcohol-Related Deaths

The most serious health effect related to underage drinking is death. When anyone drinks excessively, it is dangerous. The risk for fatalities is higher when young people drink.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2006 to 2010, alcohol factored into the deaths of more than 4300 people under the age of 21. Causes of death included vehicle crashes, alcohol poisoning, non-vehicle accidents, homicides, and suicides.

Academic Problems

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

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:

  • The brain continues to develop until about age 25, and alcohol negatively impacts brain development. The hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, 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, such as difficulty with planning, spatial thinking, and reduced attention spans.

Risk of Developing Alcoholism

The effects of underage drinking do not stop when a person turns 21. If left unmanaged, drinking from a young age can lead to alcoholism (alcohol use disorder) over time.

Even if a person does not develop an addiction directly as a result of underage drinking, he or she has a greater risk of developing a drinking problem later in life. In particular, trying alcohol earlier in life increases your risk of developing a substance abuse problem as an adult (including drug use).

Accidents & Injuries

Young people are still learning how to navigate adult responsibilities, such as driving a car, and drinking alcohol during this learning phase is extremely dangerous. Underage drinkers are more prone to certain accidents, such as:

  • Falling
  • Drowning
  • Automobile collisions
  • DUI-related deaths
  • Serious, or fatal, head injuries

Relationship Problems

Underage drinking is also linked to relationship problems because alcohol abuse affects entire families. The effect is worse when the person struggling with alcoholism is a teenager. A single instance of underage drinking might be an issue of discipline, but if there is heavier consumption, drinking becomes a family crisis.

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.

Risky Behaviors & Sexual Activity

Part of the process of growing up is learning good judgment. Although, alcohol impairs judgment. Underage drinkers are more likely to engage in risky behavior, have unprotected sex, and behave violently or aggressively. They are also more likely to be the instigator or a victim of sexual assault and have a higher risk for unintended pregnancy.

Legal & 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. Additionally, the bad choices a person makes when under the influence of alcohol can also be considered crimes.

Underage drinkers face a higher risk of being arrested for disorderly conduct, drunk driving, assault, and vandalism. Even if the younger person manages to get his or her alcohol use under control, the legal consequences of underage drinking can be life-long problems.

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Underage Drinking Statistics

Statistics show that underage drinking is widespread and affects young people from all walks of life.

According to Monitoring the Future, more than 75 percent of high school seniors have drunk alcohol at some point in their lives. Nearly half of all eighth-graders reported trying alcohol.

The Monitoring the Future Survey also reported that 8% of 8th graders and 33% of 12th graders drank in the past 30 days. Two percent of 8th graders and 19% of 12th graders participated in binge drinking in the past month.

Young people also tend to do more than just "try" alcohol. Binge drinking is a serious problem among people aged 12 to 20. Kids aged 12 to 17 average four to five drinks per occasion. They also drink this much about five times per month.

In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency room visits from people aged 12 to 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.

Underage drinkers consume 90 percent of the alcohol they drink during binges. More than 5 million young people reported having a binge drinking experience. Additionally, more than 1 million teens reported five binge drinking experiences in a month.

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Resources

“Underage Drinking Understanding.” US Department of Health and Human Services, Sept. 2004.

 “Underage Drinking | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Nih.Gov, 2017, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends.” Drugabuse.Gov, 2001, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/monitoring-future-survey-high-school-youth-trends.

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Updated on: September 23, 2020
Author
Addiction Group Staff
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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