Underage Drinking Risks

While the legal age in the United States is 21 to drink alcohol, 11 percent of all alcohol consumption occurs in individuals between the ages of 12 and 20. Underage drinking can be dangerous and lead to serious physical and mental health issues later in life.

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Why Do Young People Drink?

Many high school and college students look at alcohol as a rite of passage. At this age, children are looking for ways to assert their independence, seek new experiences, and take risks. For many, alcohol is the answer. Common reasons teenagers may begin drinking include:

  • They see parents or family members drinking on a regular basis and feel it is a normal part of growing up. 
  • Peer pressure is also a major influence in underage drinking. Preteens, teens, and young adults want to look “cool” and fit in with friends and peers. 
  • With the high-stress lifestyles common today, many teens turn to alcohol to cope with stress. Stresses may include daily obligations, getting into college, family problems, work, and school.

Underage Drinking Statistics

  • By the age of 15, 33 percent of teens have had at least one drink. That number increases to 60 percent by the age of 18.
  • Over 5 million young people report binge drinking, with just over one million reporting five or more days of binge drinking per month.
  • The CDC estimates that alcohol plays a role in over 4,300 deaths each year in young people under the age of 21.

College Life Contributes to Underage Drinking

As teens enter college, it is a time for new experiences and a new sense of independence. Unfortunately, in many cases, this often means new opportunities for drinking. 

According to a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 55 percent of college students between 18 and 22 report regular drinking. In addition, almost 40 percent report binge drink regularly. Binge drinking is defined as the consumption of five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women.

Risk Factors Contributing to Underage Drinking

When it comes to underage drinking, peer pressure and natural experimentation are not enough to draw all young people to drink. Other risk factors are often present, especially when young teens and adults become dependent on alcohol. Some major risks associated with underage drinking and alcohol abuse include:

  • Family Background and Lifestyle – Drinking behaviors of family members and friends contribute to the risk of underage drinking. Parents with alcohol problems increase the risk of underage drinking. Lack of parental support or monitoring also contributes to underage drinking. If parents do not drink at home and also warn teens about the risks of alcohol, underage drinking is less likely to occur.
  • Genetics – Many people think of alcoholism as genetic or hereditary and, in a sense, this is true. There are genes and genetic variants that predispose a person to alcohol addiction. Children of alcoholics are more likely to drink than those of nonalcoholic parents and are also more likely to develop alcoholism.
  • Childhood Behavior – How a child behaves in their younger years can increase their risk of underage drinking and alcoholism. For example, children that are impulsive, restless, aggressive, or easily distractible from ages 3 to 10 are more likely to participate in underage drinking. In the future, they may become alcohol dependent. Additionally, those with antisocial behaviors in childhood are more at risk of alcohol abuse and dependence in adolescence and adulthood.
  • Psychiatric Disorders – Conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression increase the probability of underage drinking.
  •  Trauma – Children that experience child abuse or other significant trauma are at risk of underage drinking and alcohol abuse as a method of dealing with trauma and stress.

Consequences of Underage Drinking

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

Risky Behaviors

Teens under the influence of alcohol are more likely to participate in risky sexual behavior and are often the victims of assault or sexual assault. This also includes drinking and driving, as well as aggressive or violent behavior.

Altered Bone Growth

In addition to the usual health problems of alcohol abuse and dependency, such as liver disease, underage drinking poses other risks. Regular and excessive consumption of alcohol during adolescence can delay puberty as well as alter bone growth, often resulting in weaker bones or osteoporosis.

Brain Development Issues

During childhood and adolescence, the brain undergoes critical brain development. Underage drinking can disrupt this development. One major area that alcohol affects is the brain’s ability to create memories. Remembering new names, numbers, and even events becomes problematic, if not impossible. This contributes to impaired cognitive function and learning difficulty. In addition, this can make the brain more prone to alcohol dependency. Disruption of this brain development during adolescence can lead to long-term alterations that can extend into adulthood.

Higher Risk of Alcoholism

While not all underage drinkers will progress to alcohol use disorder during adolescence or early adulthood, those that drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

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“CDC - Fact Sheets-Underage Drinking - Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Aug. 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm.

“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, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/early-drinking-linked-higher-lifetime-alcoholism-risk.

“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, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/time-for-parents-discuss-risks-college-drinking.

“NIAAA Publications.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh284/213-221.htm.

“Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking.

“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, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa37.htm.

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Updated on: January 21, 2021
Michael Bayba
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Medically Reviewed
Annamarie Coy,
All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice. For more information read out about us.

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