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Underage Drinking Dangers: Trends, Signs of a Problem and What To Do


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The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) varies from one country to another. Therefore, what is considered ‘underage drinking’ is also different. No matter what the MLDA is in each country, one thing remains the same, every country has underage drinking and underage drinking dangers remain much the same from place to place. 

Today, the legal drinking age in the United States is 21 years of age but it hasn’t always been that age. In fact, in the colonial days of our great nation, there was no MLDA. It was quite common for teens to drink alcohol during those times. They were even frequently found in the taverns at these young ages. However, in post-Revolutionary America, the religious movements and temperance began to change all of that.

In addition to the religious sentiment, recognition of the potential dangers of alcohol consumption by the medical community also contributed to a change in the attitudes towards alcohol. Both of these factors heavily played into what became Prohibition in 1920. During Prohibition in the U.S., there was a national ban on the production, transportation, importation, and sale of alcohol. 

Prohibition lasted until 1933 at which time states began to determine their own MLDA. At this time, most states set the age to be 21 years old, which was the same voting age then. During the 1970s, some states lowered their drinking ages to 18 years old. This was in part due to the fact that the legal age to vote had been lowered 18 years of age. 

However, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This act stipulated that states either raise their legal drinking age to 21 years of age by 1986 or they would lose 10% of their federal funding for highways. This act was in an effort to combat the fatalities from drinking and driving which were on the rise.

From 1988 on, the minimum legal drinking age has been 21 years of age in the United States. However, in many other countries, the MLDA is younger. It’s interesting to note that in 19 countries there is no legal drinking age, in 20 countries the MLDA ranges between 16 and 17 years, in 116 countries it is between 18 and 19 years of age, 20 in five countries, 21 in 12 countries, and completely illegal to consume alcohol in 16 countries.

Trends in Underage Drinking

Despite having an overall decline in underage drinking over the last decade, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 29% of high school students in the United States reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. What’s more, 14% reported binge drinking, 5% reported driving with alcohol in their systems and 17% said they had driven with someone who had been drinking alcohol.  

Many of these statistics are concerning and with good reason. According to research, some trends seen in the early drinking habits of youth are precursors for a possible problem with alcohol down the road. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports the following: 

  • People who start drinking before the age of 15 years are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Adults 26 years old and older who began drinking before the age of 15 have 5.6 times increased rate of AUD

In addition to the dangers of developing an AUD down the road, underage drinking dangers present issues for not only our youth but the nation as well. Here are some facts on the impact of underage drinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underage drinking

  • Cost the nation $24 billion in 2010
  • Responsible for 3,500 deaths annually
  • Led to 119,000 emergency room visits for individuals between the ages of 12 to 21

These statistics are just a part of the picture of the dangers of underage drinking. In addition, there are a number of other short- and long-term issues from underage drinking. The CDC also reports the following issues to be associated with drinking in youth under the age of 21: 

  • Lower grades and higher rates of absenteeism
  • Less participation in youth activities such as sports, extra-curricular clubs, etc. 
  • Increase in fighting at school
  • Increase in risky sexual behaviors including unplanned and unprotected sex as well as sexual violence
  • Disruption of brain development that can have long-term impacts
  • Increase in risk of suicide and homicide
  • Increase in alcohol-related car accidents and other accidents
  • Increase in legal problems from behaviors while drinking (such as drinking and driving or engaging in fighting)
  • More memory issues
  • Problems with other substances
  • Alcohol poisoning

These issues, many of which are quite serious, can lead to long-term, potentially irreversible issues. Science shows that the brain continues to develop well into the 20s, when alcohol is consumed on a regular basis before the brain is fully developed, the proper development of the brain can be thwarted. In addition, youth are already at risk for making hasty decisions due to the lack of brain development, adding alcohol to the mix only increases this risk. 

So what is normal, ‘rite of passage’ drinking in teens, and what signals there may be a problem? Let’s take a closer look at this. 

Signs of Drinking Problems in Teens 

While underage drinking amongst youth is common, not all of it is harmless. As mentioned, those individuals who consume alcohol before the age of 15 are at greater risk for developing an AUD later in life. In addition, an AUD at any age signifies there is potentially a greater issue at hand that needs to be addressed. 

Many who have an AUD also have other mental health issues such as anxiety and/or depression. For this reason, it’s imperative to seek treatment at an alcohol treatment center that also addresses any potential co-occurring disorders such as anxiety as mentioned. It’s also advised to seek help sooner than later.

Teenage years can be full of change, upheaval and turbulence. For many concerned parents, it’s difficult to determine if the behaviors they are seeing are normal or something to be worried about. If you’re concerned about the potentially dangerous underage drinking of someone you care about, take a look at the following list of warning signs. 

  • Mood changes such as an increase in irritability and anger
  • Problems at school with grades, behavior, attendance, etc.
  • Lack of care about appearance
  • Loss of interest in activities once interested in
  • Friend groups that have changed
  • Smell of alcohol on teen’s breath or clothing
  • Alcohol found in belongings
  • Signs they have been drinking such as slurred speech and issues with coordination
  • Rebelliousness
  • Low levels of energy and interest in things

Again, it’s important to remember that to a degree some of these behaviors listed are part of being a teenager, however, the more signs a teen exhibits and the more frequently they are seen, the higher chance they have a developing issue with alcohol. 

What makes one teenager decide to drink alcohol and not the other? There are a few factors that play into not only this but also whether or not that individual will eventually develop an AUD. 

Factors that Increase Underage Drinking 

Teenagers, in general, are pushing the limits, exploring the world and finding ways to express their individuality and independence. For many, drinking alcohol is seen as a way to do all of this. What many of them don’t realize is that there are many dangers associated with underage drinking as mentioned above. 

Other factors are peer pressure and stress. And while many of these are difficult to control for teens, one of the factors which increase the rate and age at which teens consume alcohol is their parents’ drinking habits.

In fact, according to the CDC, the drinking behaviors of parents as well as adults in the household, local community and state are connected to underage drinking. This is particularly true when it comes to binge drinking. Binge drinking is commonly associated with underage drinking. Binge drinking is defined by the NIAAA as drinking alcohol that brings one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent. Depending on age and size this generally equals about three drinks for girls and three to five drinks for boys on one occasion. 

When it comes to binge drinking, parents and youth, the following was reported: 

  • A 5% increase in binge drinking amongst adults in a community results in a 12% increase in the chance of underage drinking in that area
  • Teens who have parents who binge drink are more likely to engage in underage drinking than their counterparts whose parents don’t binge drink
  • 96.5% of youth between the ages of 12 and 14 who reported drinking alcohol reported getting it for free (most of the time from the home or family members)

The following factors also contribute to the risk for underage drinking as well as subsequent drinking problems into adulthood:

  • Heredity and family history of AUD
  • Maturation and development 
  • Environmental and social factors
  • Personality of youth

While many of these factors are not under one’s control, parents and guardians of teenagers can help to influence whether or not a teen chooses to engage in underage drinking and at what age as well. 

It’s vital that parents model healthy behaviors with alcohol to their children. This is important in not only preventing underage drinking but also helping to thwart poor drinking habits down the road. 

Some of the ways parents and adults can help teens faced with underage drinking are:

  • Engaging in responsible drinking themselves
  • Taking the time to know your teenager’s friends
  • Keeping alcohol out of reach of teens
  • Engaging in overall responsible and healthy behaviors
  • Maintaining regular communication with your teenager
  • Talking openly about drinking alcohol and the related dangers
  • Talking with other parents and making sure they don’t allow underage drinking if your child will be at their house
  • Encouraging your teen and their friends to engage in fun, positive, healthy activities they enjoy

While adults and parents can’t control the path their teens will take, you can certainly take a look at your own behaviors and attitudes towards alcohol and reflect what you want your teen to see as healthy behaviors. 

For this reason, it’s important to take an honest look at your own drinking habits and attitudes towards alcohol. Up until this point, many parents have not done so. It’s also important to realize that both AUD and substance use disorders (SUD) are partly contributable to a family history of both. 

If you or someone else in your family has had an issue with drinking, the chance of your teen also having an issue increases. It’s important to be open and honest about your own drinking experience. If you think you may have an issue of your own, seek help. Futures Recovery Healthcare offers comprehensive, evidence-based treatment for adults at our nine-acre, luxury campus minutes from the pristine Florida beaches. 

Perhaps you are worried about the drinking behaviors of a teenager or maybe you’ve discovered that you too may have an issue with drinking alcohol. If you do, it’s never too late to get help. Futures offers help and hope for all those adults who want to stop drinking, using another substance or are struggling with mental health issues. 

Contact us online today or call us at 866-804-2098. If you are concerned about the drinking of a teenager, you can use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator or call 1-800-662-HELP to get them the help they need. 


Our specialized staff stands ready to help you through this challenging time.

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