Though we often view alcohol as a rite of passage for adolescents, there are a lot of negative health effects to consumption of alcohol, especially in young people. As of 2017, alcohol was used more by adolescents than cigarettes/tobacco or marijuana and in most instances, alcohol was consumed more than cigarettes and marijuana combined. Underage alcohol consumption is equal among males and females, with no gender drinking significantly more than the other. Many students report that they have experienced binge drinking during high school (for girls that is 3 drinks and for boys that is 4+ drinks).
There are serious consequences to underage drinking though. Each year, alcohol is a key factor in almost 5,000 deaths of persons under the age of 21. This is divided out into homicides, motor vehicle accidents, alcohol poisoning and suicide. Nearly 200,000 adolescents are sent to the hospital yearly because of alcohol related injuries. Underage drinkers are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, including sexual assault and on the other hand, more underage drinkers are likely to be a victim of sexual assault. Drinking needs to stop being looked at as a rite of passage because it endangers so many people. The youth who drink are more at risk of injury and even death, as well as alcohol abuse later in life. As they drink and decision making skills are diminished, there is also increased risk for those in the surrounding area, for instance if someone under the influence gets behind the wheel. Not only are they already an inexperienced driver, but they have now compounded their frontal lobe which is in charge of decision making and spatial reasoning.
What can we do to prevent underage drinking and the associated risks?
There are many ways to slow down underage drinking. One of which is making it harder for those under 21 to obtain alcohol. Federally, the drinking age is the US is 21 and no point of sale should sell alcohol to anyone under 21. Retailers should make sure to card everyone and verify that it is not a fake ID. Parents and older adults should also make sure to not have their alcohol readily accessible to youth in the house and they should not purchase alcohol for underage persons.
Another key component is talking to underage persons about the risks of underage drinking. They should not only know the risks but they should understand what the proper serving sizes of alcohol are, too. Being aware of how alcohol affects a person is important to know because if an underage persons encounters alcohol, they will know how to be safe around it and how to keep others safe. Talking to youth should also consist of strategies on how to say no. Peer pressure is a huge factor when it comes to drinking alcohol and learning how to say no and resist peer pressure can make the difference in whether or not a student decides to drink.
If addiction runs in the family, parents and guardians should be even more open with their children. Genetics can very much affect how a person reacts to alcohol and whether or not they are more at risk for developing dependency or even an addiction to the substance. Often, we brush these things under the rug in America, but destigmatizing addiction and mental health issues is what will ultimately keep your child safe. They will have a better understanding of their family history and furthermore, they will feel more comfortable opening up if they find themselves struggling.
Alcohol use in adolescents is among the highest uses of a substance. They drink because of peer pressure, boredom, curiosity, and so forth. But this is not a rite of passage and those under 21 need to be informed so we can prevent use and have healthy interventions.