Underage drinking refers to the consumption of alcohol byindividuals whose age is below America’s legal drinking age of 21years. Youth below this age continue to account for 11% of allalcohol consumed in the country (Substance Abuse and Mental HealthServices Administration 1). Underage drinking is a major publichealth issue in the US as alcohol is a commonly abused substanceamong young people. Many youngsters think that alcohol consumption isa rite of passage. They fail to understand the serious threat totheir wellbeing and development when they begin drinking at a youngage. In the following discussion, the paper discusses the prevalence,causes, consequences and how to prevent underage drinking.
Alcohol is the most abused drug by American teenagers. Though youngpeople drink less frequently as compared to adults, they consume morealcohol than adults often drinking more than 5 drinks during a singleoccasion. This is due to the fact that teenagers drink more than 90%through binge drinking (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1). Above 4,750 children below 16 years of age have their firstalcoholic drink on a daily basis in the US (Substance Abuse andMental Health Services Administration 1). The NationalInstitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (1) further notes that“by age 15, about 35 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink. Byage 18, about 65 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink.” Inaddition, the institute explains that 8.7 million youngsters betweenages 12 to 20 reported to have drank more than a few sips of alcoholin 2014. Young people who begin consuming alcohol before they are 15years old have a five times higher possibility of developing alcoholdependency later in life (Substance Abuse and Mental HealthServices Administration 1).
Many youngsters who engage in underage drinking are able to accessalcohol at ease because they come from homes where parents or otherfamily members consume alcohol. The adults at times introduce theiryoung ones to alcohol by allowing them to sip their alcoholic drinks.Research indicates “that 93.7 percent of adolescents ages 12-14 whodrank alcohol got it for free the last time they drank. In manycases, adolescents have access to alcohol through family members, orfind it at home (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse andAlcoholism 2).” Hence, when alcohol is freely and easilyavailable to young people they develop the curiosity to taste it, ahabit that may eventually advance to underage drinking.
The environment could also refer to a teenager’s peers andfriends. Friends influence each other’s behaviors. At a young age,teenagers feel the need to belong to a group of friends. Some ofthese friends may be involved in bad habits, such as underagedrinking. But in order to belong, a teenager finds themselves givingin to the pressure to drink. Another illustration of how friends andpeers may influence underage drinking is when teenagers engage inrelationships with adults. For instance, an adolescent girl dating anadult boyfriend has a higher likelihood of drinking if the boyfriendis a habitual drinker (Alcohol Alert 1).
Media has the ability to influence the behavior of its audiences whoinclude young people. Currently, alcohol is widely advertised in allmedia channels, television, the internet, radio and billboards. In aresearch conducted on 3rd to 9th grade children, those thatconsidered the alcohol advertisements attractive were likely toreflect on drinking as a positive behavior and plan to buy alcohol(Alcohol Alert 1). The media portrays drinking as fun and sexy(Hanes 4). For instance, companies that produce and sell alcoholmight sponsor entertainment shows where they give away alcohol forfree to youngsters. This in turn influences the young people’sbeliefs that alcohol is not bad and encourages them to drink. Hence,it is possible to conclude that alcohol advertisements encourageyoung people to drink.
As children develop to adolescents they deal with emotional andphysical changes. The changes result in enhanced independence, whichis associated with drinking (Alcohol Alert 1). Researchexplains that as the brain continues to develop during the teenageyears it progresses to establish significant communicationconnections as well as refining its role (Alcohol Alert 1). Asthe brain develops, some actions become apparent in youngsters, liketheir susceptibility to engage in harmful behaviors. Such behaviorsinvolve experimenting with alcohol. Also, in their teen yearsunderage drinkers may not realize that they are engaging in riskybehaviors. Thus, being a youngster is a risk factor to underagedrinking. The individuals are less likely to be concerned about theconsequences of their behaviors and instead focus on the pleasuresthey derive from risk taking.
Expectancy and Tolerance
The expected outcome from drinking influences the decision byyoungsters to drink. When a young person expects that drinking willbe pleasurable, they have a higher likelihood to drink as compared toone who does not consider drinking pleasurable. By age 13, manyteenagers expect a positive effect from drinking, which explainstheir early desire to drink (Alcohol Alert 1). In addition,young people have a higher tolerance level to alcohol as compared toadults. This is because their bodies are able to withstand alcoholfor longer prior to experiencing the negative aftermaths of drinkinglike hangover, drowsiness and inability to coordinate (AlcoholAlert 1). This also explains why many young people engage inbinge drinking as they are able to tolerate consuming large amountsof alcohol at once.
A youngster’s personality is likely to influence their decision toindulge in underage drinking. According to Hanes (3), “many studieshave identified personal characteristics that may increase thelikelihood that a youth will engage in underage drinking.” Thesecharacteristics include impulsiveness, rebelliousness and youth withmental health problems. Impulsive and rebellious youngsters have ahighly likely to drink. This is because they feel the urge to breakrules and are less concerned about being responsible (Hanes 3).Mental health problems like depression predispose youth to drinking.Also, when teenagers become victims of sexual or physical abuse, theybecome mentally unstable. As a result, they might turn to drinkingalcohol as a way of dealing with their distress.
Interferes with Brain Development
Scientists note that brain development does not stop at childhoodbut the brain continues to develop until one is 25 years (Hanes 2).Underage drinking interferes with normal brain development, whichcould lead to lasting negative impacts to individuals who startdrinking at a young age. Hanes (2) summarizes a research thatcompares the brains of youngsters aged 14 to 21 years who consumedalcohol and those who did not. The research concluded that underagedrinkers had a smaller hippocampus as compared to non-drinkers. Thehippocampus refers to the section of the brain, which deals withlearning and memory. Alcohol impedes the hippocampus’ ability tocreate new memories, which negatively affects academic performance aswell as learning for underage drinkers.
Hanes (2) additionally explains that underage drinking negativelyaffects the myelination procedure in teenagers. Myelination assistsin the stabilization as well as speeding of brain processing. Whenthe process is disrupted it results in cognitive deficiencies. Whenyoungsters continue to drink, they are eventually unable to moveforward to more intricate phases of thinking or social interaction.Eventually, what teenagers presume as a rite of passage may developinto an alcohol addiction. Once addicted, the individual fails tofunction normally in terms of memory and thinking.
Engagement in Risky Behavior
Underage drinking interferes with the youngsters’ ability to makethe right decisions because alcohol impairs judgment. As a result,underage drinkers may do things that they would normally not do whensober. An illustration is the high possibility of engaging indangerous sexual activity by having unprotected sex (NationalInstitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 2). This exposes theteenagers to more problems like sexually transmitted illnesses,sleeping with many partners and early pregnancy. Hanes (5) usesfindings from a Youth Risk Behavior Survey to demonstrate thatyoungsters who drink often have 87% possibility of having sexualintercourse before the age of 13 years and with different partners.Currently, adolescents account for half of all new HIV/AIDS cases.Underage drinking has been established as a major contributor to therise in HIV/AIDS cases among youngsters.
Other risky behaviors include driving when drunk and violence. It isestimated that underage drinking causes the deaths of 4,358 youngindividuals below 21 years annually. The deaths include “1,580deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,269 from homicides, falls, burnsand drowning, and 492 from suicides (National Institute on AlcoholAbuse and Alcoholism 2).” Many young people are inexperienceddrivers and driving when drank enhances their inability to make clearjudgment and coordination on the road resulting in crashes. Thoughcrashes mainly occur when drunken youngsters are driving cars, theymay also occur when riding bicycles and motorcycles (Hansen 6).
Underage drinkers are more likely to act violently as compared tonon-drinkers. The violent acts include physical aggression, homicide,suicide and sexual assault. A survey on youth’s risky behaviorconducted by Hanes (7) concluded that youngsters who were frequentdrinkers had a higher possibility of engaging in fights thannon-drinkers. Homicide is the second major cause of death for youngpeople aged between 15 and 24. More alarming is that “about 1,500of homicides committed in 2000 by someone younger than age 21involved alcohol consumption (Hanes 7).” Underage drinking isassociated with despair and depression, which result in suicidalfeelings. As a result, many suicides by youths are alcohol related.In regard to sexual assault, underage drinkers can either be thevictims or assaulters. Youngsters who are heavy drinkers are highlylikely to be forced to have sex or force a girlfriend or boyfriend tohave sex.
When an individual starts to drink alcohol at a young age, by thetime they are 21 years the individual may already be addicted.Alcohol addiction is a serious problem for the drinker because theyare exposed to more health problems. Individuals who drink alcoholare likely to suffer from liver problems. Drinking from an early agemeans that by the time an individual is old their liver may alreadybe damaged. Another problem associated with underage drinking is thehigh possibility to experiment with other drugs. The Centers forDisease Control and Prevention (1) notes that one of theconsequences of underage drinking is abuse of different drugs. Inaddition is the fact that underage drinkers expose themselves tolegal problems like arrest for driving when drunk.
Hanes (8) states that underage drinking results in immediate andlasting economic aftermaths. The “Pacific Institute for Researchand Evaluation put the total cost of underage drinking at $68 billionin 2007 (Hanes 8).” The immediate costs arise from money spent inmedical care, repairing damaged property like cars in case of anaccident, and legal fees due to arrest for violent behavior or drunkdriving. Lasting costs include money that a drinker’s parents orfamily are compelled to spend for example in enrolling the drinker ina rehabilitation center. Also, when an underage drinker engages inrisky sexual behavior they may become pregnant and have to bear thelifetime cost of catering for the baby.
Komro and Toomey (1) suggest that underage drinking can be preventedby engaging youngsters in extracurricular activities. Manyadolescents spend time where they are not supervised by parents,guardians or teachers. Hence, they have plenty of time at theirdiscretion to do what they want. Discretionary time “represents anenormous potential for either desirable or undesirable behaviors,such as alcohol use (Komro and Toomey 1).” More research supportsadult supervision as an important deterrent in ensuring youngsters donot engage in behaviors like underage drinking. To increase adultsupervision, adolescents can be encouraged to engage inextracurricular activities during their free time. For example, theycan enroll to play in a community sport or work as volunteers. Thisensures that they spend most of their time under adult supervisionand reduces the possibility for involvement in drinking.
Vigorous Enforcement of Laws
Another approach to preventing underage drinking is to vigorouslyenforce laws that prohibit the purchase of alcohol to individualsbelow 21 years. All states have zero-tolerance and alcohol purchaselaws, which have not been effective in ensuring that young peoplecannot access alcohol. Vigorously enforcing the laws will make itimpossible for adolescents to access alcohol. It will also ensurethat strict punishment is imposed to underage drinkers to deter peersfrom engaging in the same behavior.
Learning institutions can be actively involved in ensuring thatyoung people avoid drinking alcohol. This can be achieved byintroducing alcohol education in the curriculum (Komro and Toomey 1).While many youngsters view drinking as a rite of passage, they may beunaware of the possible addiction that may follow a single occasionof drinking. Also, most young people who grow up in families whereadults drink might be unaware of the negative consequences ofunderage drinking. Alcohol education will ensure that young peopleget the right information about drinking and why they should avoidit. They are introduced to the consequences of underage drinking andimparted with skills that make it possible to resist drinking. Inaddition, youngsters become skilled on how to avoid peer pressure todrink.
According to Komro and Toomey (1), “family factors such asparent-child relationships, discipline methods, communication,monitoring and supervision and parental involvement, cansignificantly influence alcohol use among youth.” Parents rarelyspend enough time with their children, which can have a negativeimpact on their teenagers’ behaviors. Family intervention isimportant in ensuring that the behaviors of young people aremonitored by older people. This improves the possibility that they donot engage in bad behaviors like underage drinking. Research suggeststhat parents need to improve their parenting skills in order toprevent alcohol use by their children. These skills include enhancingthe relationship between the parent and child and consistentlydisciplining and rulemaking (Komro and Toomey 1). Also, parents orolder family members should ensure that alcohol placed within thehome environment is not easily accessible to youngsters. Whendrinking, older people should avoid enjoying their alcoholic drinksin the presence of youths.
Many youngsters below the legal drinking age continue to engage inunderage drinking. There is a high prevalence of underage drinking asalcohol ranks first among the most abused drugs. The reasons whyyoung people drink alcohol are because they live in environments thatencourage them to drink the media portrays drinking as fun they areat an age when they are more likely to take risks they have highexpectancy and tolerance to alcohol and some have personalcharacteristics that influence drinking. It is important foryoungsters to be alert about the consequences of underage drinkingand preventive measures put in place to stop the behavior.
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Komro, Kelli A., and Toomey, Traci L. Strategies to Prevent UnderageDrinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism(2002).
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. UnderageDrinking, (2016): 1-5.http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/UnderageDrinking/Underage_Fact.pdf
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