How Prevalent Is Teenage Drinking In The U.S.?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Teenage drinking in the U.S. is a very serious issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most used and misused drug among American teens. Excessive drinking of alcohol, or binge drinking, is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth every year, according to national statistics. Although alcohol sales to people under the age of 21 are illegal, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States; and, on average, underage drinkers consume more alcoholic drinks per drinking episode than adult drinkers, resulting in higher rates of binge drinking and increased teen drinking risks. Underage drinking can become a serious, even life-threatening problem if left unaddressed, so it’s vital to understand the extent of this risky activity.

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Are you concerned about your teenager’s underage drinking habits?

How prevalent is teenage drinking in the U.S.?

Adolescents below the legal drinking age use alcohol more than any other drug, including tobacco and marijuana. In 2016, nearly one in five 12- to 20-year-olds reported drinking alcohol in the past month. In 2017, one in three students in the 12th grade age group reported drinking during the previous month, compared with one in five students in 10th grade and one in 13 students in eighth grade. In addition, it should be noted that early initiation of drinking is associated with the development of alcohol use disorders* later in life.

* Please note that the term “alcohol abuse” is outdated and can now be referred to as “alcohol use disorders” or “alcohol misuse”.

Rates of underage alcohol use and binge drinking declined steadily from 2002 to 2015 and have remained relatively stable since then. Teen drinking has dropped in recent decades, but still, about one-third of U.S. high schoolers say they drink alcohol, and one in six say they binge drink, according to a new report. The study, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, analyzed information from a yearly survey of high school students, conducted from 1991 to 2015. In 2015, about 33 percent of high schoolers said they consumed at least one alcoholic drink in the past month. That’s down from 51% of high schoolers who reported drinking at least one alcoholic beverage in the past month in the 1991 survey. In general, the risk of youth experiencing these problems is greater for those who binge drink than for those who do not binge drink.

The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among high school students:

  • 30% drank some amount of alcohol
  • 14% binge drank
  • 6% drove after drinking alcohol
  • 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol

The underage drinking statistics from these national survey results are concerning, especially for parents. Heavy alcohol use, early drinking, and drug use by an underage teen can feel like a parent’s worst nightmare. Teen substance use is a complicated situation, especially when high school and college students tend to hide heavy drinking and general alcohol use from adults. Teenagers may lie and deny ever having tried alcohol, especially if their substance use and mental health are closely intertwined. 

When it comes to teenagers, it’s important that they feel safe opening up about their drinking behaviors, including instances of binge drinking. They may be struggling with their friend group’s drinking culture or experiencing peer pressure related to drinking alcohol. Having a trusted adult to confide in, such as a family or a school counselor, may help them gain the confidence to say no and choose healthier activities as opposed to risky behavior.   

  • School problems, such as higher absences and poor or failing grades

  • Social problems, such as arguing with peers and lack of participation in activities

  • Physical problems, such as hangovers or illnesses

  • Unwanted and unplanned sexual activity, increasing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases

  • Changes in brain development that could have lifelong effects

  • Physical and sexual assault

  • Increased risk of suicide and homicide

  • Disruption of normal growth and sexual development

  • Increased risk of being involved in alcohol-related car crashes and experiencing other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, and drowning

  • Memory problems

  • Misuse of other drugs

  • Death from alcohol poisoning

  • Legal problems, such as arrests for driving drunk or physically hurting someone while drunk

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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The negative effects of teenage drinking symptoms and signs of teenage drinking and teenage binge drinking

Statistics indicate a problem with teenage drinking in the U.S. Parents, friends, teachers, and others involved with raising teenagers can look for signs that a teen is struggling with underage drinking. Based on expert knowledge and a national survey on drug use and health, underage drinking, and alcohol consumption, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) outlines several different signs of a drinking problem. They state that underage and binge drinking are more likely if you notice several of these signs in high school or college students simultaneously, especially if they occur suddenly or are extreme in nature. They include: 

  • Mood changes: temper flare-ups, irritability, and defensiveness

  • School problems: poor attendance, low grades, and/or disciplinary action

  • Rebellion against family rules and parental authority

  • Friend changes: switching friends, and a reluctance to let parents get to know the new friends

  • A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and generally lower energy levels

  • Alcohol presence: finding alcohol in your child’s room or backpack, or smelling it on their breath

  • Physical or mental concerns: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech

It should be noted that although these symptoms and signs of underage binge drinking outlined by SAMHSA may indicate a problem with teen alcohol use or other drugs, some may also reflect normal teenage growing pains. You can ask your teen questions to help yourself figure out which it might be.

Consequences of underage drinking

Research often suggests that underage drinking leads to a variety of concerns. Youth who begin drinking alcohol before they are of legal age are more likely to experience the following:

Underage drinking and its associated problems have profound negative consequences for underage drinkers themselves, their families, their communities, and society as a whole. 

There is an increased risk of negative consequences with heavy episodic or binge drinking— the most reported and dangerous way that adolescents consume alcohol. Three out of five youths who drink alcohol also report binge drinking or excessive drinking in the past month. Concerningly, more than half of high schoolers who reported recent alcohol consumption in 2015 were binge drinkers. And of those who binge drank, about 44% said they consumed eight or more drinks in a row. Binge drinking increases a person’s risk of harm from alcohol consumption, such as unintentional injuries, alcohol poisoning, and exposure to violent physical or sexual behavior.

As stated previously, alcohol is a factor related to approximately 4,300 deaths among underage youths in the U.S. every year, shortening their lives by an average of 60 years! Since the mid-1980s, the nation has launched aggressive prevention efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to reduce and prevent underage drinking, including efforts through the Office of the Surgeon General. National epidemiologic details suggest that these comprehensive approaches have positive effects. For example, since 1982, alcohol-related traffic deaths among youth aged 16–20 years have declined by more than two-thirds.

Nevertheless, alcohol continues to be the most widely misused substance among America’s youth and young adults, and a higher proportion of high school students and college students use alcohol than use tobacco or other drugs. For example, according to the 2013 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, 25.7% of tenth graders reported that they drank alcohol in the past month, 18.0% reported marijuana use, and 9.1% reported cigarette use in the same period.

The prevalence rates of underage drinking and drug use among young people are quite high, posing risk factors for health issues and accidents. According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health’s combined 2013–2014 figures, about one in ten (10.4%) of those aged 18–20 years, 4.7% of those aged 15–17 years, and 0.7% of those aged 12–14 years met criteria for alcohol dependence or misuse as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Alcohol dependence can lead to a host of mental, physical, and social problems, so it’s vital that underage drinking is addressed before it becomes an issue that continues into adulthood. 

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Are you concerned about your teenager’s underage drinking habits?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

If you have questions about teenage drinking, mental health, or substance use in general, BetterHelp is available to those in need. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that allows you to speak to a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home with the click of a button. You can connect with someone who has experience with substance use, parenting, teenagers, or any other category that might be beneficial. Since thousands of therapists are available through online therapy, you can find someone specialized in the areas in which you need advice and support. 

Online therapy has been proven to be a successful treatment method for a variety of mental health challenges. One study found that people who misuse substances such as alcohol or drugs can benefit from web-based interventions. In this study, the intervention reduced participants’ alcohol consumption, and researchers concluded that e-therapy was superior to no treatment as well as a waiting list for in-person sessions.


According to the American Addiction Centers, alcohol is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Although underage drinking is common in the United States, it can still be alarming to learn that your teen has been participating in this often high-risk activity. Parents can help their children by giving them a safe and supportive home environment in which they can open up about their life. Talking with a licensed therapist may be an effective alternative if a teen isn’t comfortable confiding in their parents or another adult. Further, parents with busy schedules can rely on an online therapist to navigate the challenges that can come along with parenting. 

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