As young people enter their teens, education alone is not enough to deter them from using alcohol. Because of an adolescent’s perception that many, if not most, of his or her peers are involved in drinking, they may drink to fit in.
Some parents believe it is better for youth to have access to alcohol in the home where they might be supervised, however, studies have shown that early alcohol use increases the risk of alcohol dependency later in life. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), young people who began drinking before age 15 were four times more likely to develop alcohol problems and dependence compared to those who began drinking at age 21.
The national average age of a child taking his or her first drink is now 12, and nearly 20 percent of 12 to 20 year-olds are considered binge drinkers. The average age for first time alcohol use among Orange County high school students is 13 years of age.
Many adults believe that underage drinking is an inevitable “rite of passage” and that drinking in moderation, does no harm to teenagers. In fact, the opposite is true. (AMA report on alcohol effects on adolescents' brain development)
Changes in drinking patterns are different for youth compared to adults. More than 90% of the alcohol consumed by 12-20 year olds is drunk when they are binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks for a male or four for a female within a two hour time period (Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, Background Papers, 2004).
In the U.S., alone, alcohol kills more kids than all illegal drugs combined (Gruenebaum, J.A. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2002). Underage drinking also contributes to many larger social issues such as impaired driving, unprotected teenage sexual activity, teen pregnancy, school drop-outs, violence and crime. Risk taking among youth is not unusual, and is part of the maturation process: the brain area that promotes impulsivity and risk-taking develops early in adolescence. However, the area of the brain controlling impulsivity and good judgment area isn't fully developed until about age 24. Alcohol negatively impacts the growing brain of the adolescent.
A Florida campaign (Bethewall.org), describes it this way. "The teen brain is like a fast car with no brakes! It's capable of doing and learning things really quickly, but the parts that control decision making and judgment are not completely developed. Ever wonder why you have to tell them to clean their rooms a dozen times or why their moods can swing so unexpectedly? Much of this has to do with their rapidly developing brains."
"The teen brain is like a fast car with no brakes!"
The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes. Frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections continue until age 16, and a high rate of energy is used as the brain matures until age 20. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects. Youth who drink can have a significant reduction in learning and memory, and teen alcohol users are most susceptible to damaging two key brain areas that are undergoing dramatic changes in adolescence:
This area of the brain handles many types of memory and learning and suffers from the worst alcohol-related brain damage in teens. Adolescents who drink more and for longer periods of time have a much smaller hippocampus—10 percent—than those who do not consume alcohol at all.
The prefrontal cortex
This area, behind the forehead, is often called the CEO of the brain and plays a critical role in forming adult personality and behavior. It is also the area of the brain that undergoes the most change during adolescence. Researchers have found that adolescent drinking can cause severe changes to the prefrontal cortex.
Heavy alcohol consumption inhibits a brain’s ability to store information as short-term or long-term memories, affecting a teenager’s capacity for learning. As a result, teens who binge once a week or increase their drinking from age 18 to 24 may have problems attaining the goals of young adulthood—marriage, higher education, employment and financial independence. And rather than “outgrowing” alcohol use, young abusers are significantly more likely to have drinking problems as adults.
To learn more about how underage drinking affects the body, follow the path of alcohol on this interactive link.
For a compelling visual representation of this information, along with public health strategies for addressing the issue, check out these infographics, compiled and created by UIC.
If your teen suddenly refuses to do chores, misses curfew regularly, creates a chaotic and hostile environment in the home and frequently appears to be agitated or "sleepy," you should investigate further. Some of the behaviors may be typical adolescence, so try to maintain clear channels of communication and set clear boundaries and rules. However, these behaviors could also be the warning signs of alcohol and drug abuse. Other signs may include:
Television networks and cable stations profit tremendously from the alcohol industry’s aggressive marketing to underage drinkers. These ads are proven to heavily influence the normalization and glamorization of drinking in the minds of children, and television has continued to endanger the health of these young viewers in spite of such findings.
To learn more about alcohol advertising's effects on young people, go to: http://www.camy.org
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The Safe Homes Network is a community of parents and other adults who have pledged NOT to provide alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to youth. They are promising to make reasonable efforts to ensure that youth are not obtaining or using these substances in their home or on their property.
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up-to date on the issue of youth substance abuse through a bi-annual e-newsletter where you can learn how to encourage others to join our efforts. Click the button below to join the Safe Homes Network. For more information, contact Gayane Chambless at email@example.com. You can also check out the conversation on our Facebook page.