Teenage Drinking: Understanding the Dangers and Talking to Your Child

 

Early age alcohol use

Today, the average age an American girl has her first drink is 13; for a boy, it’s 11. In the U.S. and many other countries, underage drinking is a widespread problem with often serious consequences. Young people who drink are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, to be involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents, and to have depression and anxiety. Other risky behaviors are also linked to early drinking. Young people who start using alcohol before age 21 are more likely to:

  • Be involved in violent behaviors
  • Attempt suicide
  • Engage in unprotected sex or have multiple sex partners
  • Develop alcohol problems in later life

Early age alcohol use

Kids are experimenting with alcohol at earlier ages than ever before. A national survey found that slightly more than half of young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 12 and 20 have consumed alcohol at least once. Some researchers speculate that teens are more vulnerable to addiction because the pleasure center of the brain matures before the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and executive decision making. In other words, teenagers’ capacity for pleasure reaches adult proportions well before their capacity for sound decision making does.

In past generations, boys were much more likely than girls to experiment with alcohol in their teens, but girls are catching up. In 2009, 58% of all males ages 12 and older were current drinkers, higher than the rate for females (47%). But in the youngest group (ages 12 to 17), the percentage of current drinkers was nearly the same (15% of boys, 14% of girls).

While many young people will independently cut down on their drinking or stop drinking altogether as they reach their mid-20s and assume the responsibilities of being an employee, spouse, or parent, the risks of early age drinking remain. People who have their first drink at age 14 or younger are six times more likely to develop alcohol problems than those who don’t try alcohol until the legal drinking age.

Factors affecting risk of developing a drinking problem

As well as the age at which they start consuming alcohol, a number of other factors influence a teen or young adult’s drinking behavior and whether it will become a problem. These include:

  • Race and ethnicity. Some racial groups, such as American Indians and Native Alaskans for example, are more at risk than others of developing alcohol addiction.
  • Genetics. A teen with an alcoholic sibling or parent is four times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than someone without such a family history.
  • The presence of mental health disorders. Alcohol problems often go hand in hand with mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
  • Personality traits. Teenagers who believe alcohol makes it easier to socialize, for example, tend to drink more than those who don’t believe that alcohol loosens their social inhibitions.
  • Influence of family and peers. Teens are at greater risk for developing alcohol-related problems when alcohol is readily available at home or among their peer group, and if drunkenness is acceptable.
  • Gender. Men are more likely to drink heavily than women, but women become addicted at lower levels and shorter duration of use. See Women and Alcohol.

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