Underage Drinking & Alcoholism Risks

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Underage Drinking Risks

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21. However, 11% of all alcohol consumption occurs in people 12-20 years old.

Underage drinking can be dangerous. It can lead to serious physical and mental health issues later in life.

Why Do Young People Drink?

Many college and high school students look at alcohol as a rite of passage. At this age, children are looking for ways to assert their independence. They seek new experiences and take risks.

For many, alcohol is the answer.

Common reasons teenagers may begin drinking include:

  • Seeing parents or family members drinking
  • Peer pressure
  • Wanting to look "cool" and fit in
  • As a coping mechanism for stress
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Underage Drinking Statistics

  • By the age of 15, 33% of teens have had at least one drink. That number increases to 60 percent by the age of 18.
  • Over 5 million young people reported binge drinking. Over one million reported five or more days of binge drinking per month.
  • 22% of males 12-20 years of age reported binge drinking in the past month.
  • 6% of females 12-20 years of age reported binge drinking in the past month.
  • The most common age group below 21 that binge drinks are those between 18 and 20 years of age.
  • 30% reported binge drinking at least once in the last 30 days.
  • About 600,000 students sustain injuries while under the influence of alcohol.

Binge drinking is defined as having five or more drinks for men. For women, binge drinking is having four or more drinks.

Approximately 5,000 people under 21 die from alcohol-related injuries each year:

  • 32 percent of the 5,000 deaths are caused by homicides
  • 6 percent of the 5,000 deaths result from suicides
  • 38 percent of the 5,000 deaths involve car accidents

What are the effects of underage drinking?

Underage drinking comes with dangerous consequences, including:

  • Alterations in bone growth
  • Arrest and troubles with the law
  • Being a victim of violent crimes
  • Brain development issues
  • Car accidents, falls, drowning, and other accidents
  • Developmental delays
  • Engaging in risky activities
  • Higher risk of developing drinking problems (if they started drinking before the age of 15)
  • Higher risk of misusing multiple substances (substance abuse)
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders
  • Sexual assault
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Vandalism and property damage
  • Death (Children and Teens are more likely to drink too much which can result in a fatal Blood Alcohol Content)

Risk Factors Contributing to Underage Drinking

Some major risks associated with underage drinking include:

Childhood behavior

A child's behavior during their younger years increases underage drinking risk. Impulsive, restless, or aggressive children ages 3 to 10 are more likely to participate in underage drinking.

Family background and lifestyle

Parents with alcohol problems increase the risk of underage drinking. Lack of parental support and monitoring are also contributing factors.

Genetics

Some genes and genetic variants predispose someone to alcohol addiction. Children of alcoholics are more likely to drink than those of nonalcoholic parents.

Psychiatric disorders

ADHD, anxiety, and depression increase underage drinking probability.

Trauma

Children that experience child abuse or other significant trauma are at risk of underage drinking. They may turn to alcohol abuse as a method of dealing with trauma and stress.

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Does College Life Contribute to Underage Drinking?

College is a time for new experiences and a new sense of independence. Unfortunately, this often means new opportunities for drinking. 

Almost 55% of college students between 18 and 22 report regular drinking. In addition, almost 40 percent report binge drink regularly.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2018

12 Signs Your Child is Drinking Alcohol

Some common signs of underage drinking include:

  1. Adopting a "nothing matters" attitude
  2. Changing friend groups or hanging out with a riskier group of people
  3. Finding alcohol in your child's room, car, or backpack
  4. Having low energy and neglected self-care
  5. Lack of interest in activities
  6. Mental issues (memory lapses, difficulties concentrating, and slurred speech)
  7. Mood changes (defensiveness, anger, irritability, and a short temper)
  8. Physical problems like lack of coordination and bloodshot eyes
  9. Problems in school like low grades, skipping class, or getting in trouble often
  10. Rebelling against family rules
  11. Staying out later than usual, sneaking out, and appearing tired often
  12. Smelling alcohol on his or her breath

What to do if you suspect your child is drinking

Underage drinking is a significant problem. If you suspect your child is drinking, here are some things that you can do:

  • Stay calm
  • Initiate an open and honest conversation
  • Ask open-ended questions in a non-threatening way
  • Explain the physical and mental effects of alcohol
  • Seek treatment if needed.

Does Underage Drinking Lead to Long-Term Health Problems?

Underage drinking contributes to thousands of deaths each year. It can lead to many other serious health problems, including:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Altered Bone Growth
  • Being prone to injuries (falls, accidents, drowning, alcohol poisoning)
  • Developmental delays (can delay puberty)
  • Impaired cognitive functions
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Inability to create memories
  • Increased risk for violence, sexual assault
  • Learning difficulties
  • Liver Disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Risky sexual behaviors (unsafe sex and unwanted pregnancy)

Do Underage Drinkers Become Alcoholics?

Not all underage drinkers will develop AUD later in life. However, those who drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.

Although, there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances. The health effects are the same especially long term.

How to Reduce Underage Drinking

Substance use treatment and addiction rehab are effective for teens. Treatment options may include:

  • Behavioral therapies
  • Family intervention
  • Group therapy

Most teen rehab programs last about 12 to 16 weeks.

Other ways to prevent underage drinking are:

  • Talking to your child about the dangers of alcohol
  • Having an open dialogue about the effects of drinking
  • Encourage worthwhile activities and hobbies
  • Support your child's interest in sports, acting, music, or volunteering
  • Allow your kids to have fun while doing something they enjoy

Updated on November 11, 2021
10 sources cited
  1. Bonnie, Richard J. “Consequences of Underage Drinking.” Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1970.
  2. CDC - Fact Sheets-Underage Drinking - Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Aug. 2018.
  3. Early Drinking Linked to Higher Lifetime Alcoholism Risk.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 8 Dec. 2011.
  4. Fall Semester-A Time for Parents To Discuss the Risks of College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 24 Dec. 2019.
  5. How To Tell If Your Child Is Drinking Alcohol.” SAMHSA.
  6. NIAAA Publications.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  7. NIAAA College Task Force - A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges.” NIAAA Task Force: A Call to Action.
  8. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility.” at NAP.edu. National Academies Press: OpenBook.
  9. Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2019.
  10. Youth Drinking: Risk Factors and Consequences - Alcohol Alert No. 37-1997.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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