Facts About Underage Drinking and How to Get Help

Millions of American teens drink alcohol, and underage drinking can result in dangerous accidents and serious health risks. Treatment is available for those who may be struggling with underage drinking.

Alcohol is the most frequently abused drug among young people in the U.S., and underage drinking a common yet dangerous behavior for teens. Advertisements for alcohol are everywhere and continue to be promoted on popular social media platforms.

Research states that because of the novel excitement of drinking underage, teens tend to consume more alcohol in a single setting than adults. These young people may be worried about getting caught, or unsure when they’ll have access to alcohol again. When combined with the allure of peer pressure, this toxic situation can lead to underage binge drinking, or consuming more than 4-5 alcoholic drinks in one sitting.

Young people may gain access to alcohol through older friends, parties, or by raiding an adult’s liquor cabinet. Regardless of where they get alcohol, underage drinking can a deadly problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “excessive drinking use is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year … and costs the U.S. more than $24 billion.”

How Many People Drink Underage?

Despite what teens may see on television, not everyone drinks underage. Although the majority of young people don’t drink alcohol, it’s estimated that 623,000 adolescents ages 12-17 have an alcohol use disorder. The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey gives further insight into the reality of underage drinking.

High school students reported the following drinking patterns over the last 30 days:

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

Another survey reported that 8 percent of 8th graders drank during the past 30 days, compared to 33 percent of 12th graders. This shows an increase in underage drinking as student ages — however, any alcohol use under the age of 21 is extremely risky.

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Consequences Of Underage Drinking

Alcohol is a powerful drug and is classified as a central nervous system depressant. People under 20 years of age drink 11 percent of all the alcohol in the United States, meaning that young people are consuming millions of alcoholic drinks per year, putting their physical, emotional, and social well-being at risk.

Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience:

  • hangovers, illnesses, and minor injuries
  • exposure to and abuse of other drugs
  • issues with brain development
  • change in growth and sexual development
  • physical and sexual assault
  • suicide and homicide risk
  • legal problems, such as driving drunk or assault
  • unplanned and unprotected sexual activity
  • co-occurring disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • alcohol-related accidents such as car crashes, falls, burns, and drowning
  • social issues such as lack of interest in academics and extracurricular activities
  • risk of alcohol use disorder later in life
  • death from alcohol poisoning

Although any underage alcohol use puts youth at risk, binge drinking further heightens the chance that a young person will encounter these consequences.

Signs Of Underage Alcohol Abuse

Most people are familiar with the signs of intoxication, including stumbling, vomiting, slurring words, or unconsciousness. While some instances of underage drinking are obvious, it’s important to recognize the underlying warning signs of alcohol abuse in teens.

Signs of underage drinking and alcohol abuse include:

Change in Behavior

If a young person suddenly loses interests in hobbies, schoolwork, or their regular group of friends, consider it a red flag for possible alcohol abuse. Sudden interest in a new group of friends can also signal to caregivers that their teen may be struggling with alcohol, especially if this comes at the cost of time spent with family.

Defensive Attitude

Teenagers generally experience shifts in attitude toward authority figures as a normal part of growing up. But if your teen becomes defensive about routine questions regarding their whereabouts, pay close attention to this possible warning sign of underage drinking.

Physical Differences

When a young person is struggling with alcohol abuse, they may display physical changes such as weight loss or gain, decreased energy level, change in grooming habits, and unusual smell on breath, body, or clothing.

Academic Struggles

When grades and school attendance drop, it can be a warning sign that a young person is dealing with underage drinking. Teens that are abusing alcohol may begin to show a lack of concern for school, studying, and academic commitments due to a new focus on alcohol.

Co-occurring Disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens states that 6 in 10 people with a substance use disorder also suffer from mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

For teens, this can occur in two ways: teens that have experienced a childhood trauma may cope with substances, or those who have engaged in underage drinking may suffer an adverse experience while under the influence. It’s vital that young people struggling with co-occurring disorders have access to treatment that addresses both issues.

Availability of Alcohol

Teens are at an increased risk for underage drinking when they are around alcohol. If you keep alcohol in your home, make sure to lock it up and frequently monitor amounts. Have regular, open conversations with your teen about the risks and consequences of underage drinking.

If your attempts to discuss the risks of alcohol are not well received, keep having these tough conversations. This lets young people know you care and have their best interests at heart, regardless of how they feel in the moment.

Alcohol Abuse Treatment Options For Teens

Talking to teens about alcohol can be difficult, especially if they have already been exposed to underage drinking. If you believe your teen may have a problem with alcohol, help is available in the form of alcohol addiction treatment.

Alcohol rehab programs can be inpatient (residential), outpatient (half-day treatment), or partial hospitalization (full-day treatment). Residential alcohol addiction treatment can be an excellent option for young people, as this allows them to examine their relationship with alcohol in a protected environment, away from the pressures and triggers of daily life.

Many treatment programs offer alcohol detox programs, medication-assisted treatment, wellness therapies, and individual, group, and family counseling.

To learn more about underage drinking and how to get help for you or your loved one, reach out to one of our treatment specialists today.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Fact Sheets - Underage Drinking

National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Facts and Statistics

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens - What Are "Co-Occurring" Disorders?

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