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Binge Drinking in Teens and Young Adults: What You Need to Know



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Alcohol has been around for thousands of years and has played a longstanding role in many cultures. From being an important part of religious ceremonies and taking an oath for office to toasting marriages and going into battle, alcohol has been significant for many years. For teens, it’s considered a rite of passage and for college-aged kids practically a way of life. However, the consumption of alcohol by high school students and college-aged students has gone to extremes during the past few decades. It’s vital to understand common drinking trends in this age group and know what signs to look for that indicate a possible drinking problem.

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 400,000 youth between the ages of 12-17 had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). It was also reported that 20% of college students have AUDs. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days, 29% drank alcohol, and 14% participated in binge drinking in the United States.

Alcohol use disorder or AUD is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease in which there is an inability to stop or control alcohol consumption despite negative social, physical, or occupational consequences. In fact, the 2018 NSDUH found that one in four college students revealed that they have experienced decreased academic performance after drinking. From poor grades to missed classes, alcohol adversely impacts the academic success—and well being— of thousands of college as well as high school students.

Many individuals, particularly college-aged ones, drink often and more than what is considered ‘healthy.’ And underage drinking poses several risks and consequences that can be detrimental to their health and well-being regardless of how much they drink.

In this blog post, we will discuss the prevalence of binge drinking in teens and young adults, the reasons behind it, and the potential consequences. But first, let’s take a look at some of the terms commonly associated with excessive drinking.


Heavy drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that involves consuming a large amount of alcohol regularly. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heavy drinking is defined as engaging in binge drinking on at least five days in the past month. 

Binge drinking is defined as consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as a pattern of drinking that brings the body’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl. For men, binge drinking is consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in about two hours, while for women, it is consuming four or more drinks within a two-hour period.

For many, particularly college students, this defines how they drink on a regular basis. But what seems harmless to many is, in fact, either a problem now or leading to an issue in the future. For most of us, drinking in college was the norm. However, today the number of students drinking combined with the amount they drink is concerning. The numbers from the 2018 NSDUH reveal that 4.3 million people aged 12-20 reported binge drinking in the last month.

And while many teens and college students believe they are just ‘having fun’ with this partying, there are definite negative consequences that have not only been increasing but are also becoming more serious. Some of the more alarming results, for the college-aged population, are reported by the 2018 NSDUH as follows:

  • Nearly 2,000 college students died from alcohol-related, unintentional accidents
  • More than 690,000 individuals in college-aged 18-24 were assaulted by another student who had been drinking alcohol
  • Almost 100,000 students between 18-24 reported experiencing an alcohol-related sexual assault

These fatal and often life-altering consequences of alcohol use aren’t the only issues to worry about when it comes to the effects of alcohol.

Underage drinking refers to the consumption of alcohol by individuals who are below the legal drinking age of 21 in the United States. Underage drinking is a significant public health concern because it can lead to a range of negative consequences, including physical and mental health problems, risky behaviors, and legal issues. Teenage drinking can have negative effects on the developing brain. Excessive alcohol consumption before the brain is fully developed, which occurs in a person’s twenties, can have adverse impacts on teenage brain structure. Alcohol or drugs can cause issues in the development of vital parts of the human brain, including physical, cognitive, and emotional development.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has raised concerns about this issue of adolescents, alcohol, drugs, and brain development. In response to the worries surrounding this issue, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study was started and is the largest long-term study in the United States’ children in regards to the brain and cognitive development.

Overall, alcohol use and abuse are responsible for many other otherwise avoidable issues. From health risks like an increase in the rate of certain cancers and liver disease to economic and legal impacts, alcohol can wreak havoc on a person’s body, mind, and soul. When heavy drinking starts in the teens or young adult years, the consequences can be even more severe depending on if and when that person finally gets help for their alcohol addiction.

If you think you or someone you love may have a problem with drinking, it’s important to take action sooner than later. Futures Recovery Healthcare offers programs meeting the needs of a variety of men and women seeking help. From our Core program and Orenda program for the executive professional to our experiential-based Rise program, our admissions team will help you find the right treatment program for you or a loved one.

There’s no doubt that there are problems associated with drinking in both the teen and college-aged populations. But how do you know what’s simply ‘partying’ and when there’s a problem?

Often, you’ll hear someone say they are just a ‘heavy drinker’ but don’t have a problem with alcohol or alcohol addiction. Heavy drinking is defined as binge drinking on five or more occasions within a thirty-day period. So when does it become a problem? No matter what the age of the person drinking, binge drinking or engaging in heavy drinking, the same signs of alcohol addiction or a problem with alcohol apply.

What Is the Cause?

The causes of binge drinking among teens and young adults are likely to be multi-faceted and can vary from individual to individual. However, some risk factors that may contribute to binge drinking among this demographic include curiosity, peer pressure, a desire to fit in or be accepted, stress or trauma, easy access to alcohol, a lack of awareness of the potential consequences, and underlying mental health issues or substance abuse disorders. It is important to note that excessive drinking in teens and young adults can have long-term negative impacts on their health and well-being.



Taking an honest look at either your relationship with alcohol or that of your loved one is the first step to breaking the cycle of alcohol addiction or abuse. An individual can only truly decide for himself or herself if they have an alcohol or drug addiction problem. However, if you have a loved one you are concerned about, it’s important to know the real warning signs and what you can and can’t do to help them.

An official diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder follows criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a tool used by health professionals to diagnose mental health disorders. Both alcohol use disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) are considered mental health issues. The most recent version used is DSM-5. In this version, an individual can be diagnosed with an AUD with subclassifications of mild, moderate, and severe. The more criteria met, the more severe the diagnosis. In order to be diagnosed with an AUD, an individual must meet two or more of the following criteria during a twelve-month time frame:

  • Drank more than planned or for a longer period of time than planned
  • Wanted to cut down on amounts of drinking a few times but was unsuccessful
  • Spend a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from the negative effects of drinking like a hangover
  • Experienced strong desires to drink or craving alcohol
  • Found that drinking (or a hangover or the like) impacted taking care of responsibilities like school, family, job, or social commitments
  • Maintained drinking despite negative consequences in life (family, friends, job, school, etc.)
  • Stopped activities, hobbies, etc. that were enjoyed in order to spend more time drinking
  • Exposed oneself to dangerous situations while drinking more than once
  • Continued to drink after negative impacts on health like depression, anxiety, or other health issues
  • Kept drinking after experiencing a blackout
  • Drank more to get the same effects or found the diminished effects when drinking the same amount
  • Experienced withdrawal symptoms when not drinking like nervousness, shakiness, sleep issues, irritability, depression, anxiety, etc.

The more of these criteria an individual meets over a twelve-month time frame, the further their problem with alcohol has progressed. AUD is a chronic, relapsing brain disease and for many, it is very difficult to stop without the intervention of professionals with expertise in treating not only alcohol addiction but also any co-occurring mental illness or other underlying problems contributing to AUD or SUD.

A teen or young adult may be causing further damage to the body and brain with abuse of alcohol during these years. It’s vital for this age group to understand the risks and seek help if a problem is suspected. And with drinking being so commonplace in these age groups getting treatment is often easier said than done.

Taking the first step and seeking help is hard. And living with an AUD is even harder. At Futures, we understand how challenging it can be to take the first brave step and reach out for help. Our caring, compassionate, and experienced staff are dedicated to helping each client who comes to us to find the tools and support needed to recover from addiction. We are here for you or your loved one too. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-327-3183. Remember, you are not alone and there is hope.


Take the important first step and call us now for help.

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(866) 351-7588
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