My teenage daughter asked me the other day whether or not she could try alcohol. This type of question always leads to heart palpitations as my brain frantically searches for a way to sound cool, while also being in the parental role. After all, the statistics on underage drinking warrant concern, with more than 70% of individuals having tried alcohol at least once before graduating high school. That puts me against some heavy odds.
The fact is my daughter is only thirteen, and already asking about alcohol. My answer has to be crafted in such a way that I deter her from using, while leaving the door open for dialogue about the subject. There will be pressures on her that could circumvent solid parental advice, so I went with the best answer. That drinking at any age carries health risks; that underage drinking carries additional legal risk; and with a history of addiction, it’s hard to say what level of drinking (even if in smaller amounts) would be safe.
I fell back on the news story that had sparked the conversation that morning. A man had driven to an elementary school while intoxicated to pick up his daughter. He was arrested at the school and charged on multiple counts including driving while under the influence, driving while on a suspended license, and child endangerment. My girls didn’t understand the reasoning behind a decision like that. I explained that sometimes people begin using alcohol innocently enough – because they’re young, because they think it’s fun, or because everyone else is doing it. And that this type of use can quickly spiral into a pattern of problem drinking or abuse. The man behind the wheel that day was no longer in a place of making good decisions. He was literally, “under the influence” of alcohol.
I didn’t shy away from mentioning that humans do not have a fully developed frontal lobe until they are 23 years of age, which makes teens and alcohol a diabolical combination.
Alcohol On The Teenage Brain
In any given year, more than 10 million underage individuals will take at least one drink, but unlike their adult counterparts (you know, the folks with the fully developed frontal lobes), teens are far more likely to drink in excess. The average teen consumes upwards of five alcoholic beverages at one social event, a level of consumption classified as binge drinking. Binge drinking is a leading cause of death related to alcohol poisoning, in which blood alcohol levels exceed what the body can handle.
Alcohol consumption affects the teenage brain in two ways. Apart from the immediate impact compromising the decision-making part of the brain, alcohol is detrimental to the development of specific regions of the brain related to cognitive functioning. Researchers have found that the earlier someone begins consuming alcohol regularly, the more at risk they are for long-term or permanent cognitive impairment.
One study specifically examined the memory recall of students engaged in regular drinking, compared to their peers who did not. Students who admitted to regular drinking between the ages of 15 and 16 had more difficulty with testing and memory recall than their non-drinking classmates. Brain scans revealed the region of the brain most associated with learning, the hippocampus, had decreased in volume with students who engaged in regular problem drinking, than those who did not.
A Dangerous First Drink
Other research has demonstrated that the younger a person is when they first try alcohol, the more likely they are to suffer from an alcohol use disorder. Youth who begin using alcohol before the age of 15, more than quadruple their risk of developing a substance use disorder as an adult (Environmental factors may play a role in this increase, as someone with access to alcohol at 15 may live in a household where drinking is common).
Higher rates of impulsivity are also associated with individuals who begin drinking at a younger age. The younger a person begins drinking, even in small quantities, the more likely they are to increase use of the substance as they enter their later teen years and early 20’s. They are also more likely to begin trying or abusing other substances, which can compound the effects of the substances used.
Why Teen Drinking Is Dangerous
Alcohol kills approximately 5,000 underage drinkers each year, and is the cause of injury in a staggering 200,000, not to mention injuries, fatalities, and damage to those who happen to be in the path of the person who has been drinking in excess. Teens who abuse are more likely to engage in high risk behaviors such as driving while intoxicated, having unprotected sex, getting into fights, or suffering falls. Unintended consequences of teen drinking include death, injury and alcohol-induced brain damage, increased addiction risk, unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, sexual and physical assault, and suffer a myriad of legal, health, and academic issues.
Alcohol can interfere in a significant way with a person’s plans for the future, even where alcohol addiction is not a factor. Regardless of whether someone is concerned or not about the dangers of consuming alcohol, teen drinking is still illegal and getting caught can mean the loss of scholarships, jail time, fines, etc.
Women who consume alcohol are at a significantly increased risk of sexual assault. While limited studies exist on teen drinking and sexual assault, more recent studies examining sexual assault on college campuses revealed 72% of sexual assault survivors had been incapacitated due to the effects of alcohol during the crime.
Dangers Of Teen Drinking:
- Physical injury
- Brain damage
- Increased addiction risk
- Unintended pregnancy
- Sexually transmitted disease
- Sexual or physical assault
- Legal consequences
- Health consequences
- Diminished academic progress
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