The answer to the question, “Why shouldn’t teenagers drink alcohol?” may seem to be obvious. Unfortunately, many teenagers and even some adults think that the only reason for not drinking is because it is very dangerous to drink and drive. While of course this is true, and that car crashes are the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 20, there are so many other reasons why underage drinking is unhealthy and even dangerous for an adolescent’s physical, social, and emotional health.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, teens don’t just drink; they drink excessively. More than 16% of high school sophomores and 23% of seniors report binge drinking, which is defined as more than five drinks on one occasion. Since the brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s, frequent binge drinking can have long lasting effects on intellectual abilities. Growth and development of the bones is impaired, based on a recent study on laboratory animals. Teenage drinking increases the risk of adult dependence. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that teens who start drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction than those who do not begin drinking before the age of 21. To state this another way, for each year that the start of drinking is delayed, the risk of later alcohol dependence is reduced by 14 percent. Furthermore, alcohol is often a “gateway” drug; teens who drink are more likely to use marijuana, inhalants, or cocaine. The belief that alcohol is less dangerous than other drugs is a myth; drinking too much alcohol too quickly can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can cause death.
The social and emotional risks of teenage drinking are also high. Some adolescents drink to self medicate, thinking that the alcohol will help to relieve symptoms of stress and depression. What they don’t realize is that alcohol is a depressant; instead of making them feel better, it will make them more depressed. The FTC estimates that alcohol abuse contributes to an estimated 300 teen suicides per year. Higher levels of drinking also increase the likelihood of early sexual activity and risky sexual behaviors, such as casual sex with someone they don’t know or failing to use birth control. Being drunk makes girls much more vulnerable to being victims of date rape.
Binge drinking among teens can affect their daily functioning. One government study shows a relationship between drinking and grades. In fact, poor school performance is often the first sign that a teen has a drinking problem. Grades drop, unexcused absences occur, and the student may suddenly have difficulty getting along with authority figures, including teachers and parents. The family may see the child becoming withdrawn at home. He may have difficulty with peer relationships, and trouble concentrating in class and on assignments.
It is frighteningly easy for teenagers to acquire alcohol. A 2010 government survey of underage drinkers reported that 60% of respondents got alcohol without paying for it. Some were given it by parents, other family members, or friends. Others took the alcohol without permission. Over 80% of teenagers say that alcohol is easy to get. Because of this, many parents believe there is nothing they can do to prevent their teenager from drinking. Fortunately this is not true. Studies show that teens whose parents talk to them about alcohol and drugs are 42% less likely to use substances than teens whose parents don’t discuss this issue with them. Parents can not only impart information, they can help their child stand up to peer pressure by talking to them about how to say “no” when offered alcohol. Parents need to keep track of the alcohol in their home, making sure that teens can’t access it without their knowledge. Finally, parents need to assertively spread the word that they don’t want other people serving alcohol to their teen or condone teenage drinking. Silence can be misinterpreted as permission. Talk to parents of your teen’s friends. Let them know that underage drinking poses great risks and that you do not allow your teen to drink or to be served alcohol, even when the adult at the party holds the teenager’s car keys.