​The Reality of Underage Drinking

A look at recent statistics and the issue of drinking under the age of 21. A section with signs of a problem…and how to address teen drinking. More insight into the realities here.

minute read

Youth are Still Drinking Underage

Underage drinking remains a persistent problem in the United States with alcohol topping the list of most commonly abused drugs among the country’s youth. Even though it’s illegal for anyone under 21 to drink, they still do and the CDC estimates that 11% of all alcohol consumed in the US is drunk by adolescents and teens aged between 12-20 years old.

Over the years, underage drinking has become a nationwide public health concern, which isn’t surprising, given the varying health and safety risks associated with it. Whether you’re a parent, guardian or caretaker, you need to be aware of this growing risk to our young people’s future.
Underage Drinking by the Numbers

Although data from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows a decline in the number of underage drinkers, the total figures for underage drinking remain shockingly high as can be seen in the table below:

Also, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), adolescents drink more the older they get. The 2016 NSDUH corroborates this and shows that the rate of alcohol consumption starts out at less than 1% in 12-year-olds, increases to 13% in 16-year-olds and peaks at 47% for 20-year-olds. It’s worth noting that the prevalence of drinking among boys and girls is similar, routing out the misconception that teen boys drink more than their female counterparts.

Why Do So Many Adolescents Drink?

Young people can start using alcohol for a variety of reasons. The most common include:

Poor impulse control. Studies have shown that teen’s brains are still maturing and their brain’s’ pleasure centers mature faster than the regions responsible for making sound decisions. This explains why they are so drawn to risky behavior.

Peer pressure. Most teens will do anything to fit in and be accepted by their peers and friends, even if this means drinking alcohol. Besides, most have heard plenty of stories about drinking and want to experiment for themselves.

School or home-related stress. Teenagers are under a lot of pressure both at home and in school. They have to score good grades, excel at sports, secure places at good colleges and still meet their parents’ expectations at home. It’s therefore not surprising that some turn to alcohol for solace.

Mental health issues. Just like adults, young people are prone to depression, anxiety and a host of other mental health issues. Those who don’t receive help might decide to use alcohol to numb their feelings.

Signs of Underage Drinking

Adolescence is a time of transition and change so it might be difficult to discern whether the changes in a child can be attributed to a drinking problem. However, the following warning signs can be strongly indicative of alcohol abuse:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities the teen previously enjoyed.
  • Sudden changes in mood e.g. irritability, anger, depression.
  • A decline in academic performance.
  • Switching their group of friends and becoming more secretive about their activities.

Noticeable signs of drinking e.g. smelling alcohol on the breath, finding alcohol among the teen’s things, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, and coordination difficulties.

The Consequences of Underage Drinking

Although families and loved ones of underage drinkers, as well as the kids themselves, bear the greatest burden of underage drinking, it affects all of us. Some of the consequences include:

Changes in brain development. As mentioned earlier, teens’ brains are still developing and prolonged alcohol use can have a negative effect on this, causing problems in cognitive or learning functions.

Death. According to the CDC, underage drinking accounts for the deaths of more than 4,300 young people annually through alcohol poisoning, suicides, car crashes and homicides. This deprives many families of their loved ones.

Impaired judgment. Alcohol can affect a teen’s ability to make decisions, leading to risky behavior such as drunk driving, unprotected sex or even violence.

Increased risk of health problems. Excessive alcohol consumption comes with adverse health effects including increasing an individual’s risk of developing nerve damage, liver and cardiovascular diseases, cancer or even alcohol use disorder. This creates an additional financial and emotional burden for the person’s family.

Social and legal problems. Youth who abuse alcohol run the risk of alienating their families and friends, leading to isolation. Additionally, they tend to be more aggressive, increasing the risk of physical assault. They could also get arrested for assault or drunk driving.

Prevention and Treatment

Having a candid conversation with your teen about the dangers of underage drinking is one of the surest ways of warding off the vice. Other than that, you can encourage them to take up hobbies and activities that will provide a healthy outlet.

However, if the worst happens and your child starts drinking, it’s best to get them help right away. Caught early enough, and with appropriate support and professional help, your teen can go on to lead a normal, productive life.

About the author
Tyler is a freelance writer/journalist, with past experience as the head content writer and outreach coordinator for HelpYourTeenNow. His areas of focus include: parenting, education, social media, addiction, and issues facing teenagers today.
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