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 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.
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.
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 alcohol 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.
Symptoms And Signs Of Teenage 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 problems: 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
Youth who begin drinking alcohol before they are of legal age are more likely to experience the following:
- 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
- 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
The Negative Effects Of Teenage Drinking
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 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 people, 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.
How Can You Help?
We know the stats, symptoms, and signs of underage alcohol consumption, but how can you help a teen struggling with underage drinking? You can assist young people by remembering these two important steps:
Don’t Blame Yourself
It’s hard for most parents to believe that their child has used alcohol more than once in the past month alone—as many teens have. It can be even more difficult to realize that their teen has gotten so caught up in underage alcohol use that they’re in need of professional help. Do not feel bad if you did not see the warning signs until your child was in trouble or someone told you about the problem. When most parents find out about their child’s underage drinking, they feel shocked and wonder where they went wrong. Underage or binge drinking doesn’t mean your child’s life is over; oftentimes, a teen’s struggle with alcohol use results from peer pressure. Instead of blaming yourself or your child, focus on getting them help if their relationship with alcohol has progressed to an alcohol use disorder. Work to find the best available services to help your child stop using alcohol or other substances and begin building an alcohol-free future.
Find Support From Loved Ones
If you seek treatment for a child’s mental health or substance use problem, you can start by talking with people you trust. These people could include family, friends, schoolteachers, counselors, clergy, or your doctor. You can receive a referral for counseling if your employer has an employee assistance program. Your child’s school may suggest a reliable substance use treatment program. If not, the school district will likely have a substance use prevention and counseling program. Contact them for help and see how you can help your teen with advancing alcohol responsibility as they become a young adult.
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.
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.
What age group uses alcohol the most?
According to Statista, people ages 21 to 25 and 26 to 29 use the most alcohol, with 62.2% of 21 to 25-year-olds and 61% of 26 to 29-year-olds reporting current alcohol use. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that, in 2021, about 20.9% of kids aged 14 to 15 reported having at least one drink in their lifetimes, and 5.9 million kids 12 to 20 reported drinking more than a few sips in the past 30 days.
Should I let my 16-year-old drink?
No. Alcohol has various health effects on adolescents, and allowing 16-year-olds to drink is not worth the risks. In addition to increased risk of car accidents, diminished inhibitions, increased violent behavior, increased risks of sexual assaults, and poor judgment, alcohol use can have chronic effects on adolescents. In teens, alcohol use can manifest as sleep problems, weaker bones, and poorer health, significantly affecting normal adolescent brain development.
Recent studies show a dose-dependent relationship between alcohol consumption in adolescence, including increased impulsivity and decreased general cognitive functioning, verbal memory, reading skills, executive functioning, and visual-spatial function in adulthood.
What is the fastest-growing group of alcohol abusers?
There’s no easy way to determine what the fastest-growing group of alcohol abusers is, but a Gallup poll done in 2022 sheds some light on who drinks and who abstains.
According to this study, who drinks in the U.S. varies more by financial means. In households earning $100,000 or more, about 80% of adults over 18 say they drink, compared to only 49% of households that earn less than $40,000. College grads (76%) and postgrads (75%) also drink more than those who have not attended college (51%), and white adults (68%) are more likely to drink than Hispanic (59%) or Black adults (50%).
Why do teenagers drink alcohol?
There is no universal reason why teenagers drink alcohol. Peer pressure may play a role, and so can growing up in a home with parental conflict or fighting, having a family history of addiction or substance use, and having early conduct or behavioral problems. Some young people might just be bored and drink because that’s what their friends are doing, and they feel like there’s nothing better to do in their community.
What demographic drinks the most?
According to a recent Gallup poll, white adults (68%) are more likely to drink than Hispanic (59%) or Black adults (50%). Men (66%) are only slightly more likely to drink than women (61%).
What gender has the highest rates of binge drinking?
Men are more likely to binge drink. Some recent research found that, in 2018, 43% of men reported binge drinking, compared to only 30% of women.
Is 18 or 21 a better drinking age?
Available study hints that 21 is a better legal drinking age. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 set the minimum drinking age across all states to 21. Before this, the states set their own requirements. According to the CDC, after this law was enacted, states that raised the legal drinking age to 21 saw a 16% median decline in motor vehicle crashes. Drinking in people between 18 and 20 declined from 59% in 1985 to only 40% by 1991. Interestingly, drinking among people between 21 and 25 also decreased significantly when the legal drinking age was raised to 21, from 70% in 1985 to 56% in 1991.
Can a 14-year-old take a sip of beer?
No. Technically, it is illegal for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol, no matter where it’s being served. It’s generally a good idea to try to prevent underage drinking by teaching the dangers of alcohol and getting teens the support they need if they engage in behaviors like binge drinking.
Is a sip of alcohol OK?
Even a sip of alcohol can have consequences for teenagers, especially if their parents provide it. A recent study shows that allowing children to sip alcohol can give them more favorable expectations about drinking, agreeing to statements like “alcohol helps a person relax, feel happy, feel less tense, and can keep a person’s mind off of mistakes at school or work.”
What is the least harmful alcohol to drink?
As the surgeon general warned, underage drinking can have grave results. Any alcohol during the teenage years can be harmful. Regular or excessive alcohol use can significantly affect teen development, and even small sips in childhood or early adolescence can have potential life-changing effects by creating more favorable expectations about drinking.
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