Underage drinking is a serious social issue. Drinking before the legal age has been linked to many short- and long-term negative effects on physical, mental, social and academic factors. Parental involvement can help curb underage drinking and influence teens to make safe choices.
The U.S. Surgeon General reports that 70 percent of teens have tried alcohol before the age of 18. One in three high school students tries alcohol. Underage drinking is dangerous for reasons related to health and safety, but it can also lead to legal troubles and high-risk teen behavior.
Combating the underage drinking epidemic begins with education, and parents are the first line of defense when it comes to helping teens make smart choices. Reducing the high rate of underage drinking also requires combined efforts of vigilant parents and informed youths, along with the support of educators and those who sell alcohol.
Why do teens and kids drink?
Underage drinking happens for a variety of reasons. A teen’s environment—their school life, social circles, peers and family influence—greatly contributes to whether they think it’s okay to engage in alcohol consumption. This influence also extends to broader culture.
Peer pressure is a leading reason for alcohol consumption among teenagers and even younger children. Teens in particular may be pressured into trying alcohol to keep up with friends, appear “cool” or avoid ridicule. Fear of missing out (FOMO) can be a powerful driving force behind the actions of young people.
Teens are also inundated with media that normalizes and often glamorizes alcohol consumption. Movies, television shows and popular music frequently portray alcohol and drug consumption as fun, cool and desirable. These images can have a profound effect on a teen’s mentality and their choices surrounding alcohol.
Social media abounds with content featuring young people partying, which can make underage alcohol consumption seem appealing. This phenomenon has been termed “digital peer pressure.” One study found that 75 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported that social media content portraying partying with alcohol encouraged them to do the same. Another study notes that while the “glamorous” aspects of underage drinking are seen on social media, negative consequences like hangovers or legal issues are much less likely to be posted online. This leaves teens with a false idea of the reality of alcohol consumption and its effects.
Alcohol is often used as a means of coping. Teens may drink to self-medicate for mental health concerns like depression or anxiety. They may use alcohol to numb the effects of trauma, relieve stress related to school life or academic performance, or escape painful emotions that stem from problems at home.
Parental influence also plays a huge role in whether a teen is likely to drink. When parents are absent, offer poor supervision or fail to set appropriate boundaries for teens, the lack of oversight is more likely to lead to underage drinking.Some parents believe that allowing teens to drink at home will help them make healthier, safer choices regarding alcohol. However, studies increasingly show that the opposite is true: Teens permitted to drink at home are more likely to drink heavily.
Dangers of Underage Drinking
Underage drinking is dangerous for a wide range of reasons and has been linked to pervasive negative effects on a young person’s social and physical well-being. Some of the most common dangers that accompany underage drinking are identified below.
The social dangers of underage drinking impact more than a young person’s short-term well-being; they often have serious negative consequences for the long-term trajectory of a young person’s life.
The social effects of underage drinking include the following:
- Poor academic performance
- Lower rates of school attendance
- School problems like fighting
- Risky sexual behavior
- Abuse of other drugs
- Legal issues related to alcohol consumption
When alcohol use interferes with school, the result is lower test grades and a reduced focus on the future. Poor academic performance can impact prospects like college admissions, which, in turn, can impact long-term matters like earning ability, living standards and job satisfaction.
The impact is even greater when young people face legal issues related to drinking. Teens might find themselves in serious legal trouble for alcohol possession, driving under the influence and alcohol-fueled decisions that lead to physical altercations, sexual assault or vandalism.
Teens are still developing both mentally and physically. The impact alcohol can have on their bodies and brains can follow them for a lifetime.
In addition to the direct medical risks of alcohol consumption, a plethora of other health dangers are associated with underage drinking, such as:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Depressed immune system
- Disrupted growth
- Disrupted sexual development
- Issues with brain development
- Memory issues
- STDs and unplanned pregnancy
- Higher risk of suicide
- Higher risk of mental health concerns
- Abuse of other substances
- Injuries stemming from alcohol use
- Development of alcohol use disorder
Most teens are unaware of the wide range of medical issues they risk when they choose to use alcohol. Underage drinkers are also more likely to make impulsive decisions and fail to consider the consequences because decision-making and reasoning capabilities are still developing in a teen’s brain.
Your high school or college-age child may think they’re all grown up, but the reality is they simply aren’t. This means it falls to the adults in a young person’s life to help them understand the consequences of underage drinking and make choices that will support long-term health and well-being.
Signs of Underage Drinking
Parents should be aware that alcohol use among young people has become pervasive, and it’s likely that your teen has tried alcohol at some point. By knowing the common signs of underage drinking, you can get involved and help your teen make better choices.
Common signs of underage drinking include:
- Smell of alcohol
- Presence of alcohol containers
- Changes in mood or attitude
- New friends or social groups
- Lack of communication about activities
- Defensiveness or anger
- Breaking family rules
- Troubles at school
It’s important to note that these signs don’t always indicate alcohol use—teens are notorious for having an attitude and pushing boundaries. These signs could also point to the use of other substances, mental health concerns or social issues such as bullying.
Every teen deals with a certain amount of stress, hormonal changes and the desire to assert autonomy. However, an overabundance of the signs above indicates that something may be wrong.
Staying involved and knowing where your teen is and who they’re with can help. When teens know parents are watching, they’re more likely to make better choices.
Talking to Your Child About Alcohol
The best way to protect your child from the dangers of underage drinking is to be proactive. Taking the time to talk with your child about alcohol use has many benefits. When teens are informed, they’re empowered to make better choices.
Parents should not discount the power their words carry. Eighty percent of teens say that parental input has a strong impact on whether they choose to drink.
When you’re ready to talk to your child about alcohol, the following suggestions can help the conversation be positive and impactful. When discussing alcohol, parents should:
- Choose a time when you’re both calm
- Avoid blame or accusations
- Focus on education
- Make sure teens know the consequences of drinking
- Emphasize the dangers of drinking and driving
- Discuss how to handle peer pressure
- Let them know you’re on their side
Make alcohol use an ongoing conversation rather than a single discussion. Keep the tone conversational, and work to achieve two-way communication rather than give a lecture.
Ultimately, your child will eventually be placed in situations where they have to make their own choices. Educating your teen on the risks of binge drinking or drunk driving can have a major positive impact on the choices they make.
Studies show that young children understand that alcohol is only for adults. But between the ages of nine and 13, adolescents’ attitudes toward alcohol change. Ten percent of 12-year-olds have tried alcohol, and most underage drinkers begin at age 13 or 14. These numbers confirm that when it comes to speaking with your child about alcohol, earlier is better.
How do minors gain access to alcohol?
Although alcohol can’t legally be sold to anyone under the age of 21, minors don’t have much difficulty procuring alcohol when they want it.
Fake IDs are a popular method teens use to access alcohol. For many teens, especially those who drink heavily or frequently, a fake ID is an ideal way to access alcohol whenever they want. The internet has made finding fake IDs easier than ever. Well-made fake IDs are now available online at the click of a button.
Teens also commonly ask an older acquaintance to purchase alcohol on their behalf. Oftentimes, this is an older family member, neighbor or friend. Teens might seek out and pay a stranger to purchase alcohol on their behalf, a practice known as “shoulder tapping.”
Theft is another common way underage drinkers manage to access alcohol. Sometimes, teens steal from their parents’ refrigerators or liquor cabinets. Other times, they might steal directly from a store.
Teens also acquire alcohol through negligence on the part of the seller. States have strict laws—and penalties—surrounding ID requirements when selling or serving liquor. However, not every gas station clerk or grocery store cashier takes the time to check identification. If a teen knows of a store that is lax about checking IDs, that can become a popular place for repeated purchases.
Alcohol on College Campuses
The consumption of alcohol on college campuses is a major social issue.
A college’s student body is made up of a mixture of students under and over the legal drinking age. This means that many of your college-aged child’s friends and classmates can legally drink.
It’s well-known that college students often party. There’s an increased risk that a college has a culture of drinking when it has fraternities and sororities or sport-related tailgating.
Since many college students live on or near campus, parents have much less oversight over their child’s day-to-day activities. Newfound independence and freedom from parental supervision often lead college students to develop unhealthy drinking habits.
Binge drinking in particular is an issue college campuses face. Many colleges have strategies intended to mitigate underage drinking, such as limiting the areas in which alcohol can be consumed and initiating strict penalties against students who drink underage or provide alcohol to underage students.
What can bars and restaurants do to prevent underage drinking?
Bars and restaurants are held to high standards when it comes to serving alcohol. In many places, an establishment can face high fines or even lose its liquor license for serving someone underage.
Despite legal regulations and corporate policies, underage drinkers still manage to acquire alcohol at bars and restaurants. Oftentimes, this is the result of an oversight on the part of employees.
Bars and restaurants can work to counter underage drinking by taking the following steps:
- Have a strict policy to always check IDs
- Train staff to recognize fake IDs
- Educate staff on the consequences of serving a minor
- Create and enforce strict policies around serving alcohol
- Be vigilant about employees serving underage friends
Policies at bars and restaurants are only as strong as the employees enforcing them. Having clear, serious consequences for employees who neglect to check ID is the best way to ensure that underage drinkers aren’t being served.
Of all of the negative consequences that can come from underage alcohol use, drunk driving is the most dangerous. Car accidents, serious injuries, fatalities, property damage and jail time are common consequences of drinking and driving.
Some sobering statistics on underage drinking and driving include:
- Every year, 1,900 teens die in car accidents related to underage drinking.
- One out of five teens involved in a fatal car crash has alcohol in their system.
- One in 10 high schoolers drinks and drives.
- One in five teens has ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking.
- Teens are 17 times more likely to die in a car accident when their blood alcohol content is over the legal limit.
Even when drunk driving does not result in death or injury, the consequences of a DUI can reach far into your teen’s future. By educating your child on the life-threatening danger of drinking and driving and having a plan in place, you can help your child avoid the risk of driving drunk or riding with a drunk driver.
Make sure your child knows you don’t condone underage drinking, but also let them know that your priority is their safety. One day, they may have to choose between getting into a car with a drunk driver and calling you for a ride. Having these discussions proactively can help them make safe choices if they end up in a dangerous situation.