Youth Culture Window

Young Drinkers

Dynamic ImageWe know that many teens are exposed to alcohol, some more than others. We also know many teens give in to the luring temptation of alcohol, again, some more than others.

What we don’t know is the full extent of the damage being done.

According to a brand new report by SAMHSA (the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), alcohol continues to be a major player in the lives of too many teenagers…4,750 per day, in fact. That’s the number of kids 15-and-under who take their very first sip of alcohol on any given day in America. Sadly, kids who start drinking before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop a dependency on alcohol than kids who wait until adulthood to start drinking. These same kids are also more likely to binge drink (defined in kids’ lives as the consumption of 3+ drinks in one setting). Estimates range, but somewhere between 28% and 60% of kids who admit to drinking also admit to binge drinking. By the way, the CDC estimates that 90% of the alcohol consumed by kids under the age of 21 in the US is through binge drinking.

Yep. Teens treat their beer like Netflix.

Lorena Siqueira, a doctor at FIU (in Miami) who studies teen alcohol use, claims, “When kids drink, they tend to do heavy drinking. Their bodies are not ready to handle that kind of alcohol.” Unfortunately for these young drinkers, they’re doing unknown damage to their still-developing brains. “We used to think that brain development was done by the time you’re a teenager,” says Dr. Siqueira. “Now we know that’s not true,” she claimed, pointing out that brains continue to grow and develop well into our 20s if not 30s. At the very least, young drinkers are negatively impacting their retention as alcohol hinders the brain from turning short-term memories into long-term memories.

Interestingly, several new studies have recently been released on the subject of young people and their use of alcohol, and there are definitely groups of kids who are at more risk than others when it comes to underage drinking. Here are three:

College Students – According to an interview CASA (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) conducted with researchers who have decades of experience studying young people’s use (and abuse) of alcohol, college students are some of the most likely young people to drink excessively because it’s seen as a rite of passage on many campuses. Their studies have found that many college students overestimate two important factors with regards to drinking: first, the number of their peers who are drinking, and second, how much their peers approve of the practice to begin with. If the assumption is “everyone’s doing it” and “everyone’s OK with it,” reality will begin to be shaped by these conceptions….

Girls Who Mature Early…With Immature Parents – Researchers from another school in Miami, Florida Atlantic University, have discovered a correlation between teen girls’ abuse of alcohol and the level of parental supervision they receive. The American specialists studied almost 1,000 Swedish girls over the course of four years and discovered, unsurprisingly, that alcohol consumption increased in every girl as she got older. But, the marked distinction was in the lives of girls who matured earlier than their peers. Girls who reached puberty quickly, around or before age 12, who also had “close” parental supervision, increased the amount of alcohol they drank by 84% between 7th and 10th grade. That’s a lot…but it pales in comparison to the girls who matured early who only had an “average” amount of parental supervision. Those girls increased their drinking by 160% during the same years. Sadly, for the early-maturing girls who had very loose parental supervision, their alcohol consumption increased by a whopping 234%. Even more grievous was the discovery that many parents tended to withdraw even further from daughters who displayed drinking problems. Yeah, that’ll help….

Teens Who See Lots of Beer Ads – We’ve known for some time that underage drinking is impacted by the number of alcohol ads kids see. But recently, researchers from Johns Hopkins and Boston University have studied whether or not kids are impacted by a particular brand of alcohol’s advertisements. Turns out, they are. Among the 13 to 20-year olds who were surveyed in the report, those who’d seen a certain brand of alcohol advertized on national television were five times more like to drink it than one they hadn’t seen. David Jernigan, one of the directors of research, said, “These findings indicate that youth are in fact consuming the same alcohol brands that they are most heavily exposed to via advertising.”

As adults and youth workers, we need to take the subject of underage drinking very seriously. We know the stakes are very high, especially for very young kids. At the very least, let’s learn a lesson from the lax, uninvolved adults from the Swedish study above: these problems never fix themselves. We need to be a constant voice in the lives of teens when it comes to every problem, especially the problems surround and accompanying underage drinking. Here are two quick ideas:


  1. Talk with your kids about alcohol. The earlier the better. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests age 9 as a great beginning point. Dr Siqueira, quoted in research above, says that “kids are starting to develop impressions [about alcohol] as early as 9 years.” My wife and I actually have a 9-year-old son and we speak with him about matters of alcohol. We’ve discovered that, just as Dr. Siqueira says, he’s already begun to form opinions on the subject of alcohol. We just get to help him shape those thoughts in a healthy manner. You can have the discussion from a legal standpoint, a health standpoint, or even a spiritual standpoint…just don’t try to squeeze all of them into one conversation. Talk with your kids about alcohol, and talk often.
  2. Model what you teach. Very little is as frustrating as being held to a standard by someone who doesn’t keep it themselves. As adults, we face that reality with hypocritical bosses or certain law-making politicians. Let’s not inflict that upon our teenagers. When it comes to expectations regarding alcohol, at the very least, hold yourself to the standard you expect them to meet. While we can’t help you on the “modeling” side of things, but we can definitely help you on the “teaching” side of things. Here’s a great discussion starter you can use on alcohol. And another one.

A young person doesn’t have to fit a certain mold to be under the temptation of alcohol. Assume that every teenager in your life is facing that lure and do all you can to help them make responsible decisions. Preventing problems is still the best solution.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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