Underage drinking occurs when a person consumes alcohol before he or she reaches the legal age of consumption (21 in the United States). Though much of the focus tends to be on the legal aspects of underage drinking, there are significant health issues associated with younger people drinking. This is because their brains are still developing.
There are both short- and long-term concerns associated with underage drinking.
The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days:
Young people are still learning reasonable judgment and how to properly assess their circumstances. Introducing alcohol into a situation adds an extra challenge and makes it even more difficult to make the best decision. When young people drink alcohol, it often leads to accidents, violence, and poor sexual judgment.
Many long-term effects become a risk when a young person drinks.
For example, drinking during adolescence increases the risk for negative long-term health effects. This is because the effects of over-drinking are cumulative. Young drinkers have a higher risk for cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, hepatitis, high blood pressure, and anemia. Heavy drinking also affects bone density.
Though heavy drinking is a concern for people of all ages, it’s especially dangerous for younger people because the brain continues to develop into a person’s 20s. The hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, is smaller in people who drank heavily at a younger age. Young drinkers also experience mental health effects, such as difficulty with planning and spatial thinking. They tend to have reduced attention spans, too.
In addition to the direct impact drinking has on a young person’s health, there are also indirect health concerns.
Young drinkers are prone to accidents, including:
For a young person learning to navigate adult responsibility, drinking can have a serious negative impact.
Underage drinking is also linked to emotional and relationship problems. Alcohol abuse affects every member of a family, no matter the circumstances. But the effect is worse when the person with the disorder is young. 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 struggle to bond with their peers and often feel isolated and lonely.
Unmanaged alcohol use early in life can lead to addiction.
The effects of underage drinking don’t end when a person turns 21. Even if a person does not develop an addiction directly as a result of underage drinking, he or she has a greater risk later in life. In particular, trying alcohol earlier in life increases your risk of developing a substance abuse disorder as an adult.
The most serious health effect related to underage drinking is death. When anyone drinks excessively it can be 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 deaths ranged from vehicle crashes to alcohol poisoning to non-vehicle accidents to homicide and suicides.
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.
If the physical, mental, and emotional health issues related to underage drinking weren’t enough of a burden, there are also legal considerations.
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 might also be 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 ramifications of underage drinking can be a life-long problem.
Statistics show that underage drinking is widespread and affects young people from all walks of life.
According to Monitoring the Future, a yearly survey of young people in the United States, more than 75 percent of high school seniors have had alcohol at some point in their lives. Nearly half of all eighth-graders reported trying alcohol. The Monitoring the Future Survey reported that 8% of 8th graders and 33% of 12th graders drank during the past 30 days, and 2% of 8th graders and 19% of 12th graders binge drank during the past 30 days.
Even more concerning, young people tend to do more than just sample 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 and drink this much about five times per month. In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency rooms visits by persons 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 they’d had a binge drinking experience. Additionally, more than 1 million reported five binge drinking experiences in a month.
If you are consuming alcohol before age 21 or you are concerned about someone drinking underage, it’s important to address the issue and seek help from a qualified medical professional.
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“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.