Teenagers and Alcohol
by: Christopher M. Johnson, MD, MA
Most of us know that teen drinking is a problem, but how much of one? Is it more of a problem these days than in times past? Is experimenting with alcohol a normal part of growing up, or does teen drinking lead to other problems?
According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by teenagers, dwarfing all others, including tobacco. In fact, underage drinkers consume an alarming 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the United States. Nearly half of high school children report drinking some amount of alcohol during the previous month, and half of those indulged in binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion. By the time they graduate, three-quarters of high school students have tried alcohol in significant amounts. The problem extends to much younger children as well. Forty percent of 8th-graders have tried alcohol, and 16 percent of them report drinking within the previous month.
Those are the cold statistics. But the issue of teen drinking is not really about numbers-it is about the individual children who drink and what happens to them. Overall, a child who starts drinking as an early teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol-related problems as someone who does not use alcohol until adulthood. Teens who drink are more likely to abuse other drugs, develop behavioral problems at school, and engage in early and risky sexual activity. Although these other problems often go along with teen drinking, they are not necessarily caused by it. Still, such findings tell us that underage drinking is often a marker for other significant problems for teens.
One of the most dangerous problems connected with teen drinking is drunk driving. Ten percent of teens report having driven under the influence, and an even larger number (one-third) report that during the previous month, they rode in a car driven by a teen who had been drinking. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, and many of those who die show evidence of recent drinking or are passengers in a car whose driver was intoxicated.
What can a parent do about teen drinking? Talking to your children about alcohol before they find out about it on their own is commonsense advice that actually works. One survey showed that parental disapproval was a far more powerful deterrent than were legal restrictions. Equally important, parents who use alcohol need to set an example of responsible behavior, especially with regard to driving.
Christopher M. Johnson, MD, MA, is a pediatrician based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.