Teens and Alcohol: A risky way to have fun

Most parents and even most teens are aware of the risks that come with drinking alcohol, yet many of us drink. Teens and alcohol use have long been problematic. The teen brain is known for being impulsive and seeking thrills, which increases the incidence for many types of risky behaviors. When teens drink alcohol, they risk many serious consequences.

Binge drinking

Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to binge drink than adults. Binge drinking is particularly dangerous because a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time doesn’t allow the liver to clear the alcohol as it’s consumed. This leads to higher blood alcohol content and more associated problems.

Binging can quickly lead to intoxication, which can lead to many of the problems to be discussed below.

A cycle often develops when teens start drinking. The more they drink, the more likely they are to drink again. This can lead to risks with each exposure, and to long-term problems with alcoholism. People who begin drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.

Consequences of teen alcohol use

It’s illegal in the US

Drugs and alcohol should be treated with respect and used only with good judgment. This judgment should take into consideration laws and safety.

Possession of alcohol by a minor is illegal, so teens in the area where others are drinking risk getting into legal trouble simply by being there. Each state’s laws are different, but all states have a minimum drinking age of 21 years.

You do not have to be driving to be convicted of violating a minor in possession (MIP) law. If you are holding an unopened beer and are under the state’s drinking age, you can still be convicted of a MIP offense.

Teens don’t have to be legally drunk under most state’s driving under the influence (DUI) laws to be found guilty of MIP.

While it’s true that the laws are not always enforced to the fullest extent, there are many states where possession can lead to mandatory suspension of a driver’s license. Jail time and fines are possible, especially for repeat offenders.

These charges also can impact sport team participation and college scholarships. They remain in government records forever, which can affect the job prospects of otherwise stellar candidates and cause major damage to their long-term career aspirations.

Adults who make the alcohol available to teens can also be held accountable.

Teens who drink are more likely to become abusive, commit a crime, or get into a fight. Each of these situations can increase legal troubles.

Brain development

Our brain does not fully develop until the early to mid 20s and early use of drugs or alcohol is impacted in two ways due to this. Teens fail to realize the full implication of their actions and alcohol can prevent proper brain development.

Teens often cannot understand the consequences of their actions due to brain immaturity, yet they are held accountable for their actions. They tend to be impulsive and crave thrills. Teens want to please peers and fit in. All of these typical teen traits can put them at risk to try known risks, including drugs and alcohol.

Not only does the underdeveloped brain put kids at risk to drink, but drinking impairs the way the brain grows.

Short-term or moderate drinking can impair learning and memory far more in teens than in adults in the mid 20s and beyond. Adolescents need to only drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.

Studies have shown physical changes in the brain in kids who drink, especially in the hippocampus and frontal lobe. Our hippocampus helps us learn and remember things and the prefrontal lobe is important for judgement, planning, impulse control and decision making.

Damage to the brain from alcohol during the teen and young adult years can be long-term and irreversible.

Injuries

When our brains are under the influence of alcohol, our bodies become uncoordinated. We lose judgement capabilities.

When drunk, one is more likely to fall, get into an accident, or get into a fight.

Many teens are hospitalized each year due to intoxication itself or the injuries resulting from being drunk.

Death

We all know the mantra to never drink and drive, but driving isn’t the only serious risk with drinking. Simply drinking too much alcohol can lead to coma and death.

If you choose to drink, you should ideally have food and water to help slow absorption. Unfortunately many teens drink excessive amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time without water or food. This might be due to the fact that they want to quickly drink before going to a school function, where no alcohol is permitted. Or maybe they are challenged to chug beer or down several shots. I’ve seen teens not eat during the day to “save calories” because they want to drink in the evening and not gain weight. These patterns are especially dangerous.

Drinking and driving is never safe, even if you feel you are still sober. Unfortunately alcohol impairs our ability to judge if we are sober or not. Underage drivers are more likely than adults to suffer impairment behind the wheel.

From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about a quarter of those crashes involve an underage drinking driver. In 2016, young drivers, 16-24 years old, made up 39 percent of drivers involved in fatal alcohol-impaired crashes.
  • To reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes among youth, all States have adopted a minimum legal drinking age of 21. NHTSA estimates that minimum-drinking-age laws have saved 31,417 lives between 1975 and 2016.

Despite the large numbers of people killed in alcohol related traffic accidents, the majority of underage drinking related deaths are not traffic related. Deaths occur from homicides, suicides, burns, falls, and drownings. Some kids drink to the point of alcohol poisoning and stop breathing.

Risky sex

Being under the influence of a substance can also put you at risk for being raped or having unprotected sex.

I don’t believe that anyone scan consent to sex if they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, yet we know that being intoxicated is associated with sexual activity.

My favorite example to help understand consent is the Cup of Tea video, which is nicely discussed in the linked blog from EducateEmpowerKids.org.

When under the influence, the chances of using proper protection from infections and pregnancy falls. Drinking is associated with sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.

Do not drink from a container that has been left unsupervised – someone could slip something in it.

I encourage kids to stay with a group when they’re out. No one should be allowed to leave the group unless it is pre-arranged. You should not allow a friend to make this decision if they are under the influence.

Not cool

Drinking isn’t going to make you cool. In fact, it can lead to you saying and doing embarrassing things. You lose coordination, so can look very foolish. You might even get so drunk that you vomit on or pee on yourself.

No one wants to deal with a hangover the next day, but heavy drinking can easily lead to one. That’s definitely not cool.

And your “friends” have cameras with them at all times these days. One simple mistake or moment of poor judgement can be forever recorded… and potentially seen by parents, school administrators, your coach, or your boss. Even your future children could see your moment of disgrace if it’s uploaded or shared.

Depression

Depression is a risk factor to start drinking. People attempt to make themselves feel better with alcohol. Of course the alcohol leads to other problems, which tend to worsen the depression.

If you feel like you’re depressed, help is available! Talk to your parents, your school counselor, or your doctor.

If you feel like you want to hurt yourself, call the Suicide Hotline. Put a number in your phone now or search it in time of need.

  • Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • 1-800 –SUICIDE (784-2433)

Obesity

It’s no secret that alcoholic drinks can pack in a lot of calories. When people consume alcohol regularly, they are much more likely to become overweight or obese.

Increased weight is associated with many health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, metabolic problems and liver disease.

Find a way to say no.

Just say no. (Only really confident people can be secure enough to not give a reason.)

Tell your friends that if your coach finds out, he’ll kick you off the team.

Say that your parents smell your breath when you get home. If you’re caught, your parents will probably tell other parents. (That will scare them into even asking you again!)

Offer to be a safe ride home if you have a car and are allowed to drive friends.

Say you don’t want the calories.

State that you want to be on top of your game for whatever you’re doing. For instance, if you’re playing cards you might not be able to strategize as well or keep a poker face if you’re under the influence. If you’re swimming you want to be safe. Since many people get tired when drinking alcohol, you can simply say that you don’t want to fall asleep at the party.

If you’ve already been in trouble for drinking, admit to that, and let them know that you don’t want to suffer consequences again.

Plan on doing things that keep people busy and are fun rather than just going somewhere to “hang out.” Go to a sporting event or a movie. Bring frisbees to a park. Go for a bike ride. Play a competitive card or board game.

Remember you can have fun without drinking!

For more information about teens and alcohol:

Impact of alcohol on the developing brain

Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage