Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D. and Padma Ravichandran
Boys will be boys, teenagers will drink, and it’s hard for many adults to take teen drinking very seriously. Although the minimum age for alcohol consumption is 21 years old, youth aged 12-20 consume about 11% of the country’s alcohol in a given year and most of that 11% was consumed during binge drinking. This has health and social implications, and teens and adults should take it seriously.
One study followed almost 1,000 adolescents from high school through age 24. The researchers found that teen drinking predicts problems in adulthood. Adolescents who were problem drinkers tended to grow up to be adults who were problem drinkers, and were also more likely to be depressed, anxious, antisocial, and to have problems with other types of substance abuse. Children of alcoholic fathers were found to be at especially high risk for future alcoholism. Even those with less serious drinking problems as adolescents tended to grow up to have more serious alcohol problems, as well as have other substance abuse, depression, and antisocial personality symptoms. Other problems associated with underage drinking include: doing poorly in school, disruption of normal growth and sexual development, memory problems, and changes in brain development. All teens with symptoms of drinking problems should get help from those who are trained to treat mental illness or substance abuse.
Alcohol abuse does not occur in isolation and it occurs on a continuum, but even teens with relatively minor problems are at risk for disaster. The implications for family members, teachers, and other adults who work with or care about youth are clear: don’t laugh off or ignore drinking problems among teenagers, because they are often symptoms of much more serious problems now and in the future. In fact, one study showed that when teenagers were allowed to drink they engaged in riskier behavior than the teenagers whose parents did not allow them to drink. In addition, they generally experienced more negative consequences from their drinking.
Underage drinking not only affects the teenagers themselves, but it can affect the community as well. Teens and young adults like to drink and they like to drive, and everyone knows it’s a disastrous combination. One study done in Texas found that drinking as little as one to two beers can have a bad impact on judgment and driving decisions.
The researchers found that even those participants at the .04 blood alcohol level-half the legal limit for driving in Texas and 20 other states-had trouble controlling a skid, steering to avoid a simulated crash, or dealing with a car that was difficult to steer and break. All driving tests were conducted during daylight and most people drink after dark, therefore they would likely be further impaired by darkness and fatigue. One of the researchers also pointed out that a 120 lb woman could reach a .04 blood alcohol level after only one beer, and a 150-lb man could reach that level after only 1-2 beers. The research has important implications for teens, who are not always aware about how drinking affects them, and who are less experienced drivers and less able to cope with the unexpected while driving.
According to recent CDC statistics, 11% of high school students surveyed indicated that they had driven a car after drinking alcohol, and 29% rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. In 2008, 11,773 people were killed in alcohol related motor vehicle crashes; 1,347 of those individuals were children age 14 and younger. These statistics make clear that even moderate drinking can be deadly when mixed with driving-for teens and adults!
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008). Alcohol. Retrieved on 12 Apr 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/quickstats/underage_drinking.htm
 Rohde, P., Lewinsohn, P.M., Kahler, C.W., Seely J.R., Brown, R.A. (2001). Natural course of alcohol use disorders from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.40(1).83-90.
 Abar, C., Abar, B., Turrisi, R. (2009). The impact of parental modeling and permissibility on alcohol use and experienced negative drinking consequences in college. Addictive Behaviors. 34(6). 542-547.