How Serious Is Underage Drinking, Really?
“As long as they’re not snorting cocaine, shooting heroin, or popping ecstasy pills, I’m fine with my teenaged kids having a drink or two every now and then.”
That is the sentiment embraced by many parents in America today. However, while illicit substances might cause more acute adverse effects, it is still unwise to downplay the impact of underage drinking.
Underage Drinking by Gender
The majority of American teenagers sample alcohol at least once, and about one out of every nine alcoholic beverages is consumed by someone who is underage. Moreover, in the US the average age at which alcohol is first tasted is 13 for girls. That age drops to 11 for American boys.
It is important to know that boys and girls often experiment with alcohol for different reasons. Boys often view drinking booze as a rite of passage into manhood, or they may use alcohol as a way to lower their inhibitions when interacting with girls (hence the nickname “liquid courage”). They also are more likely to turn to alcohol when they are angry.
On the other hand, girls are more prone to hitting the bottle in order to escape their problems, especially those which originate in their own families. In fact, this reason for drinking is more prevalent than peer pressure among girls. In addition, drinking puts girls at additional risk because it can delay puberty. Getting drunk increases the likelihood of unprotected sex, which can result in unwanted pregnancies or sexually-transmitted diseases.
The Consequences of Underage Drinking
There is also a growing body of research which suggests that underage drinking can have lasting effects on the adolescent brain. An Australian government study revealed a link between extended heavy teenage drinking and a 10 percent reduction in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain which oversees learning and memory. A recent rodent study that appeared in the journal Pediatrics observed similar results in the brains of adolescent rats.
What is more disconcerting is that underage drinkers expose themselves to a heightened risk of a wide range of negative outcomes. Statistically speaking, teenagers who consume alcohol are more likely to:
- Fall behind academically
- Experience violent behavior
- Get injured
- Damage property
- Be involved in a fatal automobile accident
- Become the victim of a rape or sexual assault
- Attempt suicide
- Suffer from alcoholism later in life
Even if they manage to avoid these calamitous events, underage drinkers can still find themselves in problematic situations if they are caught by law enforcement officials. Criminal penalties for “minors in possession of alcohol” or similar offenses can range from stiff monetary fines and the revocation of a driver’s license to mandated community service, alcohol education programs, or even incarceration.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of underage alcohol use is what is known as binge drinking. This is usually classified as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting. Among teens, binge drinking can boost the odds of bad outcomes even more by putting teens at risk of alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
Therefore, it is unwise for parents to understate or dismiss the dangers surrounding underage drinking and teenage alcoholism. A better approach involves openly discussing the dangers of alcohol use, setting distinct rules with clear consequences, and being vigilant about teens’ activities and peer groups. If alcohol becomes a recurring problem in a teen’s life, it may be prudent to consider treatment at a rehabilitation facility. Most importantly, parents must disabuse themselves of the notion that underage drinking is less dangerous than abusing illicit drugs.
If your teenage son or daughter is struggling with alcohol abuse, contact us today to see about getting them the help they need and deserve.