Teen Alcohol Use and Risk: Alcohol Awareness Month

In the United States, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 21. Yet, underage drinking remains a significant public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among young people in America. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that nearly 60% of teens have had one alcoholic drink by age 18. Young people are also more likely to binge drink than adults. The CDC defines binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion for men and four or more drinks on one occasion for women. A survey by SAMHSA reported that approximately 5.1 million people under the age of 20 engaged in binge drinking in the month before the survey.

There has been a slight decline in alcohol consumption among high schoolers, but the issue of underage drinking still poses major health and safety concerns. Here are statistics from 2019 to 2022 that shed some light on underage drinking patterns in America:

The SAMHSA 2019 national survey found: 

  • Approximately 24.6% of young people between the ages of 14 and 15 have had at least one drink in their lifetime.
  • Approximately 7 million young people between the ages of 12 to 20 have reported drinking more than "a few sips" of alcohol in the past month. 

The Centers for Disease Control's 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed the following behaviors among high schoolers in the month before they took the survey:

  • 29% drank alcohol.
  • 14% binge drank.
  • 5% drove after consuming alcohol.
  • 17% rode with a teen who was under the influence of alcohol.

The CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report: 2011–2021 reported that alcohol consumption among high schoolers during the past 30 days has declined from 39% in 2011 to 23% in 2021. 

Another survey by Monitoring the Future (2021) showed that between 2020 and 2021, alcohol use declined from 21% to 17% among 8th graders, from 41% to 29% among 10th graders, and from 55% to 47% among 12th graders. Researchers consider the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—when students were learning remotely, away from social pressures, and unable to gather in person—one of the main reasons for this decline. However, the 2022 Monitoring the Future report indicated that lifetime alcohol consumption has returned to its pre-pandemic levels—increasing to 61.6% in 12th graders, 41% in 10th graders, and 23% in 8th graders. 

Why Do Young People Drink? 

Various factors influence why young people try alcohol. These may include curiosity, peer pressure, asserting independence, trying to escape negative feelings, or even genetics. Left unchecked, some teenagers might develop alcohol addiction. Understanding the risk factors associated with underage drinking can help parents, schools, and communities provide effective prevention and early intervention measures. These factors include:

Peer Pressure

Social pressure is a significant reason for underage drinking. Conforming to peer behavior and not wanting to be left out in social situations is important to many teens. Watching friends drink, being encouraged by them to partake, or even being dared to drink can pressure teens to start drinking. 


Scientific evidence links alcoholism and genetics. Young people may be genetically predisposed to substance use, especially if they have a parent who struggles with alcoholism or belong to a family with a history of alcohol abuse. Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics according to American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, but this is only one factor that may contribute to alcohol abuse. Many teens who have a genetic connection to alcohol abuse will not become alcoholics.


Alcohol is a depressant. Teens may begin drinking to help ease their nerves when they are under stress. Emotional changes during puberty, childhood trauma, family dysfunction, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, or even pressures to perform well at school may motivate teens to drink as a coping mechanism. 

Media Advertising

Media, especially social media, plays a significant role in shaping how teens view alcohol. The influence of media often comes from advertising that depicts friends enjoying a travel break at a beachside bar or pushing a stereotype of having fun with a bunch of people drinking or dancing at a club. Popular television shows sometimes glamorize drinking. Social media influencers also might show drinking in an attractive and positive way without regard for its negative effects. Whether it's in advertisements, television shows, or music videos, the media often portrays indulging in alcohol as cool. 

Effects of Underage Drinking 

Teen alcohol use opens the door to many risks, both short-term and long-term. The best way to mitigate dangers from teen drinking is to educate teens about how alcohol affects their developing bodies and can lead to harmful outcomes. Here are some key facts all teens should know:

  • People's brains continue developing until their mid-20s, which means underage drinking can alter brain structure and function before it is completely developed. Additionally, alcohol adversely affects the liver and disrupts the endocrine system, which controls hormonal balance during puberty. This can lead to lifelong impairment. 
  • Teens are often unaware of their drinking limits, and binge drinking may result in alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal. Alcohol poisoning is a consequence of drinking too much alcohol within a short time, usually a span of a few hours. A blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.8% or higher is the national legal limit for intoxication, and a BAC of 0.30% to 0.40% or higher is potentially life-threatening, risking coma or death. 
  • Alcohol impairs judgment, slows reaction time, and distorts perception, putting teens and those around them in harm's way physically or sexually. Impaired teens may engage in drunk driving, commit acts of violence or sexual assault, or participate in unprotected sexual activity, leading to unwanted pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. 
  • Underage drinking can also contribute to a lack of concentration, memory problems, fluctuating moods, increased risk of suicide, and higher risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of an accident or homicide.
  • According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), those who begin drinking before age 15 are at risk for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.
  • Arrests for drunken behavior or drunk driving can result in legal issues that may result in imprisonment, fines, loss of a driver’s license or even affect a teen's college or future job prospects. 

How Can We Help Young People?

Parents should stay involved in their children’s lives through regular conversations with them about life. The topic of underage drinking is not a one-time talk. Parents must communicate the dangers of alcohol on developing bodies and regularly engage in open discussions about drinking. Teens who hear a consistent, reaffirming message from their parents are more likely to heed warnings when it comes to drinking. Parents must also get to know their teen's friends so that they can intervene when peer relations have a negative impact. Parents should also teach their teens how to handle stressful situations, such as preparing a response to decline alcohol in social situations and having a plan for them to call a friend or family member to pick them up or help them out of uncomfortable or dangerous situations. Find out if adults will be present at parties, and if they plan to serve alcohol. 

Parents play a primary role in shaping teen attitudes toward drinking and can model a healthy relationship with alcohol. Some parents allow their teens to drink at home, hoping they will not engage in alcohol use outside the house, but this still carries risk and exposes them to legal issues. According to the NIAAA, a study of sixth to eighth graders found that teens permitted to drink at home drank heavily outside the home. On the contrary, other studies showed teens not allowed to drink at home and whose parents modeled responsible drinking behavior were less likely to drink outside. Through family- and school-based intervention programs designed for adolescents, parents and teachers can provide timely help to those struggling with alcohol abuse.

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