Alcohol: Underage Drinking
What is underage drinking?
Underage drinking occurs when someone under the legal drinking age consumes alcohol. In the United States, the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) is 21.
How common is underage drinking?
Underage drinking is a significant public health problem. In recent years, researchers found that among high school students:
- Nearly 1 in 3 drink alcohol.
- Almost 1 in 5 have ridden in a car with a driver who has been drinking alcohol.
- One in 20 have driven after drinking alcohol.
What is binge drinking?
Experts define binge drinking as:
- Five or more drinks in one sitting for men.
- Four or more drinks in one sitting for women.
Research has found that more than 1 in 10 high schoolers binge drink. Binge drinking can have long-term effects on your heart, kidneys, pancreas and lungs.
What are the effects of underage drinking?
Underage drinking can have severe effects. In the United States, more than 3,500 people under 21 die each year for reasons related to excessive drinking.
Young people may be more likely to drink and drive. They are also more likely to experience:
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Alcohol abuse and misuse of other substances, such as illegal drugs.
- Legal problems, including getting arrested for drunk driving or fighting while drunk.
- Physical and sexual violence.
- Problems at school, such as low grades or frequent absences.
- Social problems, such as social withdrawal or fighting.
- Unplanned or unprotected sexual activity.
Does underage drinking lead to long-term health problems?
Underage drinking can lead to long-term health problems. People who drink alcohol at young ages are more likely to experience:
- Changes in their brain development.
- Disruption in their sexual development.
- Alcohol use disorder as adults.
Why do children and teenagers start drinking?
As children grow into teenagers, they often experience challenging physical and emotional changes. Many young people start experimenting with alcohol during this time.
A combination of factors can affect a teenager’s decision to drink, including:
- Peer pressure, including from family members, peers and media.
- Stress, such as worrying about grades, puberty changes or popularity.
- Transitions, such as parents’ divorce, moving to another school or breaking up with a significant other or close friend.
Do adults affect underage drinking?
A teenager’s drinking habits may reflect the drinking habits of the adults around them. For example, adolescents are more likely to drink when their parents binge drink. A 5% increase in adult binge drinking leads to a 12% increase in the chances that the children or teenagers around them will drink.
How can I tell if my child is drinking?
Some potential signs of underage drinking — like oversleeping, grumpiness or complaining of aches and pains — can be a normal part of growing up. Drinking is more likely to be the cause if teenagers show:
- Many warning signs at the same time.
- Behavioral changes that come on suddenly.
- Warning signs that are extreme.
Common signs that a child or teen may be drinking include:
- Friend changes, including a reluctance to introduce new friends to their parents.
- Mental changes, such as poor memory or concentration.
- Physical changes, such as bloodshot eyes or lack of coordination.
- Problems in school, such as low grades or poor attendance.
- Severe or sudden mood swings.
- Alcohol presence, including finding alcohol in their room or smelling it on their breath.
How can I talk to my child about underage drinking?
If you are a parent, it’s crucial to talk to your children about alcohol and other substances. And sooner is better than later — at age 12, only 1 in 10 children say they have tried alcohol, but by age 15, 1 in 2 have tried it.
When you start the conversation about alcohol, it’s important to show:
- Awareness: Young people are more likely to try drugs or drink alcohol if they think no one is paying attention. Communicate that you are watching for signs of risky behaviors.
- Disapproval of underage drinking: Over 80% of teenagers say their parents have a strong influence on their decision to drink or not drink. Be firm and clear that you don’t approve of underage drinking.
- Care for your child: Make sure your child knows you are on the same side. Express care for your child’s safety, well-being and health.
- Reliable sources of information: Teenagers often learn about alcohol from their friends, the media or other sources of misinformation. Use reliable sources and share the facts about alcohol risks with them.
- Trust: Young people need to know you trust them to make the right decisions. Come up with a plan together about avoiding alcohol. For example, you might choose a code word to text if your child needs a ride home from a party.
What should I do if I suspect my child is drinking?
If you suspect your child is drinking, stay calm. Have an honest, non-threatening conversation. Ask open-ended questions, such as why your child is interested in drinking. Often, this conversation can lead to a discussion about the risks and negative effects of alcohol. In particular, explain how drinking alcohol can affect decision-making, physical health and safety.
If needed, don’t hesitate to seek treatment for your child’s mental health or a substance abuse problem. Ask your healthcare provider for program or counseling recommendations. A professional counselor can offer the best services to help your child stop misusing alcohol.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Underage drinking is a significant public health problem. Teenagers who drink are more likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning, have social problems or engage in violence. Children or teenagers start drinking for many reasons, such as stress or major life transitions. Parents’ drinking habits also affect whether a child starts drinking. If you are a parent, talk with your children about the risks of alcohol consumption.
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