11 Reasons For Underage Drinking, Its Risks & Prevention

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A teen drinking alcohol is considered underage drinking since the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the US is 21 years. Teenage drinking is a public health problem in the US, as per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since it accounts for more than 3,500 deaths each year (1).

As per a study conducted on teenagers aged 16 and 17 in 2019, one in ten adolescents engaged in binge drinking while one in five engaged in drinking. Binge drinking is when a person has three or more drinks in a single sitting. Either way, excessive drinking in teenagers could cause several alcohol-related problems (2) (3) (4).

Read on to know more about the causes of teenage drinking, its consequences, and prevention.

Why Do Some Teenagers Drink Alcohol?

Teens experience dramatic physical, emotional, mental, and lifestyle changes in their journey towards adulthood. Teenagers undergo periods of emotional upheavals and find it difficult to exercise control. For example, puberty and increasing independence can be linked to alcohol and drug use in teenagers.

Developmental transitions in adolescence may increase the risk for dangerous drinking in teens. Further, alcohol is a drug most commonly abused by teens due to its easy availability and affordable price.

The following factors are some common causes of alcohol use in teens (3)(5).

  1. Risk-taking behavior: Some teenagers drink alcohol to experiment with alcohol and seek thrill. Teens may often act impulsively and drink alcohol without bothering about the consequences.
  1. Peer pressure: One of the most common reasons behind teen drinking is peer pressure. Sometimes, new friends can encourage alcohol consumption, and some teens may begin drinking to fit in and get accepted in the group. Teens feel that drinking gives them a passport to being more acceptable.
  1. Tolerance and sensitivity to alcohol: Sometimes, young people may binge drink because they can take in more alcohol than adults before the negative effects of alcohol such as hangovers, drowsiness, and lack of coordination kick in. And in some cases, they may also be more sensitive to the positive effects of drinking, such as a feeling of more confidence in social settings after drinking by giving them a high.
  1. Expectancies: The way in which a teen views alcohol drinking can influence their drinking behavior. For instance, teens who associate drinking with a pleasurable experience tend to drink more than those who associate unpleasant experiences with drinking. A young child may view alcohol negatively and see drinking as bad with adverse effects. However, as they reach adolescents, these beliefs can shift, and they may be more inclined to the positive effects of alcohol.
  1. Hereditary factors: Children of alcoholic parents are at an increased risk of becoming alcoholics themselves. They may often start drinking at a very young age. Tolerance to alcohol’s effects may also have genetic links. Research shows that this can be due to certain brain differences, such as brain wave pattern changes and brain structure changes, in children with alcoholic parents.
  1. Personality traits and psychiatric comorbidity: Children who begin drinking at a very early age, such as in their tween years, often have similar personality characteristics, making them more susceptible to experiment with drinking. Teens with depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior, hyperactivity, and aggression are at an increased risk for alcohol abuse than others. Antisocial behaviors and rebelliousness can also be associated with a higher risk for alcoholism in teens.
  1. Environmental factors: The influence of parents and peers can also be a reason behind teens beginning drinking. Favorable reviews on alcohol from parents and peers can make the teen drink more. Seeing parents drink easily and all the time as well as a casual attitude towards drinking can make the children more inclined towards drinking. The impact of media, such as alcohol ads portraying alcohol consumption as “cool,” can also entice teens to take up drinking.
  1. Misguided information: Sometimes, teens can be misguided by wrong information that alcohol helps reduce certain issues such as anxiety, stress, issues at home, trauma, and school pressure.
  1. To show they are older and independent: Some teens may use alcohol to prove that they are no longer kids. Drinking is exclusive for adults, and by doing it, they want to prove they are adults now. Sometimes, they can copy certain parental behaviors to show maturity, and drinking alcohol could be one.

Although the emotional rollercoaster ride and struggles with independence during the teen years can be the reason for drinking in many teenagers, some may not have any specific reasons for alcohol use. The more you understand the cause of drinking in your teens, the easier it is to talk and alert them about underage drinking.

How To Talk To Your Teen About Alcohol

Talking to a teen about alcohol is not easy. Rolling of the eyes, slamming the door, and grunting are some reactions you could expect. However, the earlier the teen uses alcohol, the more problems that appear, so it is never too early to discuss alcohol with your teen. The following tips may help you talk to your teen without causing conflicts (3).

  1. Choose the right time. Talking to them while they are in the midst of something may invite distraction, and they may ignore the suggestions. Thus, talk to them when you and your teen are relaxed and calm.
  1. Talk about common topics and interests before discussing sensitive topics such as alcohol use to get your teen talking about it. Broach the subject gradually. Jumping in right into the discussion about alcohol may trigger fights in many situations.
  1. Never make it a lecture. Instead, make it a conversation since this may allow your teen to open up and give you their views, ideas, opinions, and thoughts about drinking. Make it an interactive discussion. They may often want to be understood and heard.
  1. Discuss the consequences of drinking and driving with your teen if they ever did that. You may discuss alternative ways to reach home, such as letting someone sober drive them home or calling a taxi to pick them up. However, let them know it is better to avoid drinking and discuss ways to overcome temptations.
  1. Discuss the reasons they should not drink, and highlight the things they could do and achieve if they do not get into the habit of drinking.
  1. Make them realize the adverse effects of drinking. Give examples from everyday life.

It is not a one-time task to encourage a teen to quit drinking, so you may keep the conversation going whenever possible. Try to encourage them with positive rewards if they make improvements. Also, never hesitate to seek expert help to let your child quit drinking.

Consequences Of Teen Drinking

Teen drinking or underage drinking poses several health risks. Binge drinking can make adolescents more prone to these risks at an early age. The commons health problems associated with alcohol use in teens may include (5)

  • Brain effects: Alcohol can cause subtle changes in the brain. Although these defects are not often detectable via imaging, they may negatively impact the child’s thinking and memory skills. Alcohol drinking can have a more severe impact on adolescent brains than adults since it is still maturing. As a result, it may cause memory and cognitive problems and interfere with a teen’s academic performance.
  • Endocrine and growth effects: Hormonal changes, such as an increase in the sex hormones—estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys—are normal during puberty. These hormones enhance the production of growth hormones in the body. Drinking alcohol can lead to growth delays and prevent the maturation of the reproductive system.
  • Liver problems: Alcohol causes liver damage. Elevated liver enzymes are seen in adolescent drinkers, primarily obese or overweight teens. Chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis are common.

The other effects of teen drinking may include (1)

  • Social issues, such as fights and not participating in youth activities.
  • School problems, such as lower grades and increased absenteeism.
  • Physical problems such as hangover or drowsiness.
  • Not concentrating on studies.
  • Legal issues due to hurting someone or driving under the influence of alcohol.
  • High risk of suicide and homicide.
  • Unprotected sexual activity and violence.
  • Alcohol-related accidents, such as drowning, falls, burns, or motor vehicle crashes.
  • Alcohol poisoning.
  • Substance misuse, such as using marijuana and other drugs. Inclination towards drug use is increased.

Teens who binge drink may have more problems than teens who do not binge drink. However, alcohol can gradually affect the body even when taken in lesser quantities. Underage drinking can also lead to adult drinking and alcohol-related illnesses in later life.

How To Prevent Drinking In Teens?

Various interventions at the family to community level can prevent underage drinking. Risk-taking behaviors such as drinking alcohol can be due to teenage factors. As some of these behaviors are shaped by the child’s environment, the following interventions may help prevent underage drinking (5).

1. Individual-level interventions

Individual-level interventions help change teens’ knowledge, attitudes, motivation, intention, and expectancies about drinking alcohol. These may help teens resist drinking regardless of the influences and opportunities. Individual-level interventions may include

  • Family-based prevention programs: Setting clear rules against drinking and monitoring teen’s behavior at home can help reduce underage drinking. You may enforce this practice consistently. Teen drinking can also be prevented by sharing the right knowledge about alcohol and its effects. So, parents may set an example and explain to the child the consequences of alcohol. This can include other family members or friends respected by the teenager.

A teen consuming alcohol to relieve stress can be encouraged to do yoga, exercise, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques.

  • School-based prevention programs: School-based programs help educate the child about alcohol drinking and often use scare tactics. Understanding the consequences of drinking may prevent many teens from doing it.

2. Environmental-level interventions

Environmental-level interventions decrease the opportunity for underage drinking. These approaches may include

  • Increasing alcohol prices: Raising alcohol prices is shown to decrease consumption and alcohol-related problems in youngsters.
  • Increasing the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA): The legal age to purchase alcohol is 21 years in many places. This is one of the most successful interventions to prevent underage drinking and reduce motor vehicle accidents due to drinking and driving.
  • Enforcing zero-tolerance laws: Increasing penalties for underage drinking may help reduce the number of teens consuming

Treatment For Alcohol Use In Teens

Teens who meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and dependency require medical interventions to quit drinking. Brief interventions are often given in primary care, emergency room, or school-based medical settings. These straightforward approaches may help the teen from severe alcohol use disorders and health problems related to alcohol use.

Some teens may need rehabilitation programs due to more than one substance use disorder, such as alcohol and drug use. Rehabilitation programs need to be sustained and ongoing. Teens with coexisting psychiatric disorders may also require more specific care. Medications to prevent drinking are usually given if no option is left to tackle alcohol abuse and dependence.

A teen’s decision to start drinking can be due to an interplay between environmental and genetic factors. It can also be due to the easy availability of alcohol. Strict rules on underage drinking may help teens avoid alcohol. In addition, treatments can help teens who already have alcohol dependency to stop alcohol usage.

Key Pointers

  • Alcohol and drug use in teens can be associated with developmental stages such as puberty and increased independence.
  • Children who grow up with alcoholic parents are more likely to turn to alcohol.
  • Teens who are addicted may need medical assistance to stop drinking.

References:

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Dr. Mubina Agboatwalla

(MBBS, DCH, MCPS)
Dr. Mubina Agboatwalla is a well-known pediatrician, practicing paediatrics since the last 20 years in Karachi Pakistan. She is the head of the department of Pediatrics in Karachi Liaquat Hospital, as well as her private practice in three specialist clinics in Pediatrics. She is also a Public Health Specialist specializing in preventive health including nutrition, breastfeeding and infectious diseases especially... more

Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more