The problem of alcoholism and youth is a very prevalent issue in the United States. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 5% of youth between 12-17 years old drink alcohol, with 2% of those drinking on a regular basis. Alcohol abuse can lead to serious health consequences such as brain damage, liver disease, and heart disease.
Understanding the relationship between alcoholism and youth, and how it affects a growing body, is critical to helping resolve underage drinking and alcohol abuse. This article examines the reasons adolescents drink, the associated health risks, and proactive ways to reduce underage drinking.
Research studies show that children are drinking at younger ages than ever before. In fact, alcohol is the most popular drug among young people. In eighth grade, over 10 percent have consumed alcohol to excess. By the 12th grade nearly 30 percent of teenagers have gone on a drinking binge.
This means there are about 1 million students in the United States who over-indulge regularly. These are the key people susceptible to alcoholism.
Alcoholism among different age groups
The data shows that youth are drinking at very young ages. The average teenager who abuses alcohol consumes five drinks in a row, typically during one sitting. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of teenagers have done this in the past two weeks. While most people would not consider 5 drinks in one sitting hazardous, studies indicate that it can lead to alcoholism when engaged regularly.
This level of chronic over-consumption is especially harmful for children because their brains are still developing well into their twenties. Researchers believe that much of an individual's susceptibility to alcoholism hinges on this process of brain development.
When children and adolescents drink excessively they put themselves at high risk for alcoholism later on. Alcohol can affect the way cells in the brain grow, mature, and function. When people frequently drink alcohol before their brains are fully developed they increase their chances of developing an addiction to it when older.
A study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that children who drank before age 15 were four times more likely to be alcoholic than those who did not drink prior to age 21. Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that teen drinkers are twice as likely to become problem drinkers later in life when compared with individuals who delay drinking until they are 21 or older
Drinking patterns among high school students indicate early symptoms of problem drinking. Young binge drinkers are seven times more likely to develop a substance use disorder than those who abstain from alcohol completely. Binge drinking is a significant risk factor for alcoholism because it shows that an individual has a tendency to overindulge.
There are a variety of contributing factors to underage drinking to consider:
On-going developmental changes: Teens in particular experience a great deal of anxiety and stress as their hormones and social situations change. These transitions may lead them to seek out alcohol to relieve those negative feelings.
Thrill seeking and social pressures: Young people are far more prone to test their limits including with alcohol. They are also more prone to give into peer pressure from friends who party, expecting the overall experience to be pleasurable.
Media representations: While commercials are careful to have adults in bar and party scenes there’s no question that the message comes thru as, “this is fun!” That message appeals to people of all ages.
Physiology: Young people do not experience the negative results from drinking as quickly as adults, so they’ll drink more to ease social awkwardness (for example) without having any immediate health issues. This, in turn, can lead to higher consumption rates more regularly, which puts them at risk of alcoholism.
Heredity and environment: Children of alcoholics, or those living with moderate to heavy drinkers show a higher propensity toward drinking and alcohol abuse.
Serious drinking problems: The younger a person begins drinking, the higher the risk becomes that they will become an alcoholic, and at an earlier age than otherwise might be the norm under different circumstances.
Dangerous behavior: There is a strong tie between alcoholism and youth, and the use of illegal drugs or engaging in other risky behaviors (like unprotected sex).
Brain and body development: Researchers are starting to look very closely at the effects of alcoholism and youth on the brain’s and body’s development. Underage drinking may account for difficulties later in life with long-term memory or critical thinking. Additionally it may shift physical development because of altered hormonal balance.
Evidence suggests that alcohol abuse in minors may negatively impact reproduction to some degree.
Various ideas have been put forward about how to prevent alcohol abuse in minors. These ideas fall into two categories. The first is environmental, which requires the cooperation of local stores and authorities. For example, increasing the price of alcohol makes it harder for a minor to buy it.
Having mandatory proofing, increasing the legal drinking age, and encouraging peer-supported school programs are three other possibilities.
The second category is direct intervention between children and friends or family members. Educating minors (especially those with high risk factors) on alcoholism, its warning signs, and long term effects, while also encouraging open communication helps win at least part of the battle.
If alcohol abuse can be presented in truthful ways, and if alcohol isn’t a “mystery” it’s not going to be as appealing.
The key to preventing underage drinking is open communication between the drinker and their family members. Parents must be aware of their child's behavior, friends, and surroundings in order to identify possible problem behavior before it becomes out of control.
Many parents are not aware that they are the most important influence on their child when it comes to making healthy choices about alcohol use. If you are concerned for your own reasons or feel your child may have a problem with alcoholism, get help right away. Alcoholism can escalate very quickly without proper treatment.
If you have questions about alcoholism and youth, it’s causes and results, please email us.