Teenagers are in an experimental phase of their lives where many things are shiny and new and maybe worth trying at least once. Unfortunately, for some adolescents, this includes trying addictive alcohol and drugs, and that could lead to long-term misuse and abuse of harmful substances.
U.S. Teens Are Drinking, Statistics Show
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has highlighted the issue of underage drinking in the United States, calling it a serious public health problem.
It also declares alcohol the most widely abused substance among people in the country and warns that the consequences of alcohol use among young people will affect everyone, no matter how old they are or if they drink or not.
The NIAAA cites research from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health research showing that 24.6% of people ages 14-15 reported having at least one alcoholic beverage in 2019 (Table 2.6B). Also that year, 7 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 said their alcohol use went beyond “just a few sips” in the past month (Table 7.1A).
Binge drinking, the practice of ingesting four or more alcoholic drinks in a two-hour period, is also a concern, the organization reports, saying, “More than 90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people are consumed through binge drinking.”
While they may drink less than adults of legal drinking age do, they drink more when they do indulge, according to NIAAA’s report. Based on the data collected, people between the ages of 12 and 20 drink 4% of all alcohol that people drink in the U.S.
Data show that in 2019, a little more than 4 million young people self-reported binge drinking in the past month, while 825,000 young people binge drank on five or more days in a month.
Peer Pressure Among Reasons Teens Drink
The need to fit in or prove oneself to their peers drives some young people to take a risk and start drinking or using drugs in their formative years. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) cites data saying that 86% of teenagers know someone who smokes, drinks, or uses drugs during the school day.
Other reasons adolescents try addictive substances include stress and just wanting to try something new.
Not everyone who uses alcohol or drugs is automatically put on a path to a lifelong struggle with substance use. If an adolescent’s family has a history of alcoholism or substance use, or if they have been exposed to unhealthy drinking habits while growing up, they could be more susceptible to engaging in problematic drinking.
Still, developing substance use habits in adolescence is risky. As NIAAA notes, “Alcohol use often begins during adolescence and becomes more likely as adolescents age.”
Some of these young people will take substance use habits into their college years as well.
Teen Alcohol Use Can Adversely Affect Brain Development
Teen substance abuse is dangerous for many reasons, including its adverse effects on brain development for children in this stage of life. The brain hasn’t fully formed until about age 25, so early drinking and drug habits have a lot of potential to disrupt normal brain development and rewire the brain in ways that are harmful to an individual’s growth.
The teen years are challenging for young people for many reasons. Their bodies are changing, and so are their minds and feelings, which helps explain why they can be indecisive or erratic or exhibit irrational thinking and behavior. Adding addictive substances to the mix can make this an even rockier period for them.
There is a view that the brain of an adolescent is wired to be open to risk-taking, so trying “forbidden” substances such as alcohol can be appealing to young people who want to test the waters. Twenty-one is the legal drinking age in the U.S.
Because alcohol use is so widespread, alcohol is easy to come by, and that makes it easier for children to experiment and take their first drink long before they even think about life at age 21. Some young people have their first taste of alcohol when they are in elementary school or sometime before they leave high school.
Dopamine and the Developing Brain
The rush of dopamine that comes with alcohol can overwhelm the developing brain, making it difficult for an adolescent to return to a normal state. The brain remembers the pleasurable effects of dopamine, which creates a desire to repeat the action, even in a young mind that is still growing.
Cravings are often hard to ignore for a person of any age when the brain is primed to receive signals of pleasure from an activity. A teenager who continues to drink primes the brain to come to expect pleasure from alcohol. They will continue to repeat the action again and again, growing tolerant of a substance.
This tolerance likely will encourage them to drink more to bring about the effects they experienced when they initially tried alcohol, putting them at risk of alcohol addiction and overdose.
A young person can decide to stop using alcohol once they realize they are having a hard time controlling their drinking or their desire to stop.
Unfortunately, some will find they struggle to stay away from alcohol hard to commit to as they battle more cravings and uncomfortable symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Many give in and go back to using to avoid feeling sick. This is known as a relapse.
If an alcohol user is at this point, they could have alcohol use disorder (AUD), which ranges from mild to severe, and may require help from addiction care professionals at an accredited facility.
Alcohol Use Risks Can Affect the Short and Long Term
Teenage alcohol use can create physical, mental, and emotional challenges that can follow young people into their adult lives. While it may seem fun, adventurous, and daring, alcohol use at a young age comes with consequences that could cost some their health and well-being, even their lives.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, alcohol intoxication can cause a young person to:
- Struggle with motor coordination and sound decision-making
- Put themselves at risk of getting hurt in a fall or other injury
- Not know where they are due to dulled senses that make it hard to know where one is or what they are doing
- Engage in risky or unscrupulous behavior, including driving while drunk, violent acts, or unsafe sex
“Kids who start drinking young are also seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident when they begin to drive,” NCDAS highlights in its report.
Many young people who drink are unaware of the long-term consequences of underage drinking, especially how alcohol use can leave lasting changes on the brain, including the cerebellum, which is in the lower back of the brain, as well as the prefrontal cortex.
These effects on the brain can affect memory and a person’s ability to process or recall information.
There are also mental and emotional effects that come with underage drinking that can affect young people. Teenagers who misuse alcohol can struggle with anxiety, depression, and other emotional disturbances. Some may have an undiagnosed mental health disorder and drink to self-medicate in order to deal with it, while others may develop a disorder due to drinking alcohol.
Treating Teenagers for Alcohol Use Disorder
Young people who cannot control their drinking should seek help as soon as possible. In many cases, it is very difficult to stop alcohol use on one’s own. The good news is that no one has to conquer addiction alone.
Going to a professional, accredited facility that specializes in helping people with substance use disorders gets many people the help they need. There is alcohol addiction treatment designed for teenagers. They can use a combination of therapies and medications to treat their AUD. If possible, look for a program that specifically treats adolescents with substance use disorders, as it will know exactly what this specific population needs as they recover from substance use.
For many people, medical detox is the first stop on the road to recovery. Many drug treatment facilities offer detoxification to help their patients manage the stages of withdrawal without relapsing. Medical professionals oversee this critical process, monitoring patients 24/7.
No two people’s recovery programs will look the same, and that applies to teenagers who cycle through an alcohol addiction treatment program. An evaluation will be done at the beginning to assess a teen’s needs, and based on the information collected, a program will begin to take shape.
Post-detox treatment for substance use disorders often includes therapy, counseling, and in some cases, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help them overcome their substance dependence. MAT uses FDA-approved medications to help someone abstain from alcohol use.
There are facilities that offer counseling for young adults and their families, including cognitive behavioral therapy, as they work to overcome alcohol dependence.
For further support, teenagers in recovery can join and participate in aftercare programs focused on helping people in recovery maintain their sobriety.
A teenager in recovery can continue outpatient treatment and therapy at a facility and meeting with like-minded peers in support groups.