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Alcohol and Adolescents

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was effective in establishing a national legal drinking age of 21. States were quick to adhere to this law, which tied state highway funding with adoption. Nevertheless, even though the law prohibits sale, consumption, or possession of alcohol by those under age 21, a serious problem of alcohol use among young people still exists.

Adolescents are especially at risk. Our children are bombarded by media messages that glamorize the use of alcohol and minimize the serious consequences of alcohol problems. According to several studies, the average age of onset for alcohol experimentation is between 12 and 13 years of age. According to the 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 79.1 percent of students reported having consumed at least one alcoholic drink in their lifetime, with 50.8 percent reporting alcohol consumption within a 30-day period preceding the survey. These students are not immune to binge drinking either, with 33.4 percent reporting ingestion of five or more drinks at one sitting during the 30-day period preceding the survey.

These numbers are frightening, as young people are also at risk for many complications associated with alcohol. People who begin drinking at an early age are more likely to become alcoholics. Additionally, adolescents who engage in binge drinking in high school are also likely to continue this behavior in college.

There are many negative consequences associated with adolescent drinking. Perhaps the most frightening is automobile accidents. Teens are at high risk for fatal car crashes because of alcohol. In addition, sexually active teens are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases because of the poor decision-making associated with alcohol use. Alcohol is also a factor in intentional (suicide, homicide) and unintentional injury (falls, drowning). There is a correlation between alcohol and victimization. Young people may be victims of sexual or other crimes when alcohol is involved. There is also a possibility that alcohol consumption in young people may affect growth.

Why do teens use alcohol? In addition to the media messages glamorizing alcohol, other reasons may include:

  • reducing stress
  • lessening feelings of alienation
  • increasing sociability
  • altering mood
  • lessening feelings of loneliness
  • availability of alcohol
  • feeling/acting older
  • escaping from problems
  • parental drinking behavior
  • peer pressure

Many adults believe the main reason teens use alcohol is peer pressure. Although it is a factor, most teens do not believe peer pressure is the main reason for drinking. Most list reasons specific to emotional turmoil. Also, adults are not always willing to believe that their own drinking behaviors may set a bad example for their children. For example, the adults who drinks and drives may set a very dangerous precedent. In families which have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, parents have a grave responsibility regarding children and alcohol. Although not all children with a family history of alcoholism will become alcoholics, there is a risk. In these families, early-onset drinkers are much more likely to have significant problems with alcohol.

There is a mistaken belief that since the average of onset for drinking is 12 to 13, intervention and prevention should also begin at this age. This is not the case. Pressure to use alcohol may begin much earlier. Thus, it is imperative that young children learn about the effects of alcohol in simple terms in the early grades, with increased information provided as the child matures. It is also helpful to teach children to analyze advertisements critically, as development/maturity indicates. We should not accept the glamorization of alcohol as acceptable, and we must give our children the tools to evaluate the reality of false messages. Children need to internalize a positive sense of self-esteem. This is vital in the development of peer resistance or refusal skills. Children who feel good about themselves are more successful in dealing with pressure to drink.

Another essential prevention strategy is modeling responsible behavior. Alcohol is legal, and many adults and parents do drink. It is important that these adults demonstrate a respect for alcohol and that they not overindulge or engage in behaviors that put the family or others at risk. Parents should also recognize warning signs of alcohol abuse and know how to obtain help for a child with a drinking problem.

Other Links

A Message to Teenagers...

Binge Drinking

Al-Anon and Alateen

Tips for Teens: the truth about alcohol

Alcohol: What You Don't Know

Students Against Drunk Driving

Teens and substance abuse

Above the Influence