10 Dangers, Problems of Teenage And Underage Drinking
News courses through a community in a much different way in the era of social media. To my knowledge, no local media reports exist concerning these recent events, but within the past four to six weeks at least two underage drinking parties have been raided in my hometown.
Although, I wish no ill for any teenager (court appearances, etc.), I do applaud the police effort on this front because underage drinking is a societal problem, not a rite of passage as some parents apparently think. Underage consumption is a danger to teens and it's a drain on the United States economy.
Most parents I know view underage drinking, especially when it involves high school students, as dangerous and inappropriate, but a handful of parents do exasperate the local problem by either supplying alcohol, ignoring the behavior, or naively believing their child does not drink. According to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, 99 percent fall into that last category.
Here are 10 facts about underage drinking.
1. Their Brains Aren’t Ready: The Prefrontal Cortex
Unfortunately, some adults believe that teenagers are just young adults, but science shows that is not the case. When it comes to alcohol, biology works against underage drinkers. Underage drinkers can consume less yet get drunk quicker than an adult and one key section of their brain is not developed. The prefrontal cortex is the section of the brain a person uses to form decisions, recognize errors, and control impulses. In part, it is this underdeveloped section of the brain, that makes teens – teens.
This lack of judgement can lead to excessive risk taking, poorly thought out decisions – like binge drinking and then posting about it on social media – or deadly decisions like impaired driving. One of the reasons the legal drinking age is 21 is because alcohol consumed at a younger age can impede or damage brain development. This is especially true with binge drinking, and according to a 2014 report, 90 percent of teens who consumed alcohol reported having at least one episode of blacking out.
2. Alcohol and Sexual Assaults
If you read books like Asking for It by Kate Harding, you will be educated on just how prominent sexual assault is in the United States. (Be forewarned she pulls no punches when discusses the issue – nor should she). As Slate points out in a review of the book,
The reality, as Harding details in chapter after chapter, is that rapists generally go unpunished, victims are blamed, and everyone from cable news pundits to TV show writers continues to be confused about the difference between consensual sex and rape, which isn’t actually confusing.
This point was driven home recently when a California judge minimized the crime of rape by sentencing a Stanford college student, drunk when the crime was committed, to six months in jail even though he was convicted of raping an unconscious woman. The risk of sexual assault rises significantly when alcohol is involved.
3. They May Not Drink And Drive, But They Drive And Ride
Even though the message is pounded into their heads, teenagers drink and drive – and some even joke about it on social media – as one commenter noted – it doesn’t count if you see a cop (while driving) if you haven’t been drinking. Although the national stats for teen driving after drinking is still relatively low – seven percent – the number of deadly crashes associated with teen drinking is still high.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and one-fourth of those wrecks involve an underage drinking driver. But, before you think they are drinking and staying, consider this stat, the number of teens getting into a vehicle with someone who has been drinking is considerably higher – 21 percent admit to climbing into a vehicle with an impaired driver. Alcohol-related crashes are the leading cause of death for people age 15-24.
4. Impaired Decision Making
One of the most painful examples of the poor reasoning of the impaired teen brain occurred more than a decade ago in a nearby town when a group of high school students were experimenting with Ecstasy. One of the teens overdosed on the drug, and died, not from the overdose, but because friends did not call paramedics. They were afraid they would get in trouble.
Teenagers, who often fail to see the results of their decisions when not impaired, make even faultier and potentially life-altering decisions when under the influence. Many drive home after drinking at a party while others put a drunk friend inside a car to ‘sleep it off’ despite outside temperatures low enough to cause hypothermia. Alcohol is connected to the top five causes of teenage accidental death.
5. Parents Who Think It Is OK
Of course every community has them – parents who see teen alcohol consumption as a rite of passage – and these parents see no problem with supplying alcohol to another parent’s child (which is illegal) or looking the other way (which is immoral). In a small town where I live, rumor abound of parents collecting money from teens like a huckster in a Mark Twain novel, moms double-checking with their child what drinks the kids prefer or of fathers drinking with teens until old age takes over and he passes out in his recliner.
Proving such stories is an act of futility, but there is probably some truth in all of it.
Although, I believe in the Americanism of ‘you stay on your side of the street and I’ll stay on mine,’ with teenage drinking, the actions of permissive parents are crossing into my side of the street, whether or not my child is involved, because the cost of excessive drinking – and teens tend to binge drink – is estimated as a $24 billion drain on the United States economy. It also puts impaired drivers on the road, and increases unsafe behavior in teens.
6. Increases Risk Of Addiction
No one ever intends to become an addict. As I have written elsewhere about my father, he gave me my first drink of liquor when I was four. I can still remember his mother’s protests as he poured a shot for me and my older siblings. Fortunately for me, by the time I was six, my father quit drinking, leaving behind a life that led to arrests for public intoxication and driving under the influence. Although, my father never used the term, he was probably a recovering alcoholic.
I have known and worked with many alcoholics and recovering alcoholics and none of them set out to become addicted. Yet, a teen who begins drinking by age 15 is four times more likely to become an alcoholic than one who begins drinking at 21.
7. Teen Depression And Suicide
Part of the reason, I decided to write this article was I spent several hours combing through social media comments after the latest arrests occurred in my hometown. In many ways, social media is a cesspool of passive aggressive behavior, angry diatribes and petty insults. But underneath a lot of it, is the depressing comments penned by teens. One does not need to be medically trained to figure out these kids are dealing with a lot of turmoil and that for every party and its resulting chemically-induced high, there is a low and some of the lows persists until the next chemically-altered state of mind.
Teen depression is considered epidemic by some authorities and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people age 15-24.
8. Delayed Adulthood
One adult in my community who was recently arrested for underage consumption, posted his mug shot online, bragging about how he was already out of jail (of course, he did not mention the upcoming court appearance or court fees).
How his life unfolds remains to be seen, and it is largely in his hands. But, research shows that people who drink heavily during their adolescents are more likely than others to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder later in life. Some will become alcoholics and their life will, in essence, be subsidized by society as they fail to live up to their full potential.
9. They Brag On Social Media
Although teens resent the statement, it is still true, all too often youth is wasted on the young. Do they drink and get away with it? Absolutely. But do they drink and post images of themselves online? Absolutely. Since I have a teenager, I troll various sites at will, and within 10 minutes can find images and texts of local students engaging in risky behavior and inappropriate actions.
Many schools, including the one my daughter attends, try to hamper illicit drug use and underage drinking through zero tolerance policies, which unfortunately do not work. One reason is because it indirectly punishes innocent people. For example, if an Athletic Director were given the image of a high school athlete holding a bottle of beer, he would be forced to make a tough decision especially if the student was a key player in a win. For example, if punishing the student nullifies a well-timed basketball shot, soccer goal or home run that led to a tourney win, does the AD face the wrath of a community ‘wronged’ when the team is disqualified for one player's action – or does he ignore the infraction.
10. Draining The U.S. Economy
Underage drinking is a profit-maker for the alcohol industry. According to the Center for Disease Control, 11 percent of all alcohol sales are consumed by underage drinkers (some reports say it is 20 percent of all alcohol consumed). In many ways, this is a form of corporate welfare since the United States economy is given a $249 billion-dollar invoice in return for our excessive drinking problem. A 2013 report estimated the cost of hospitalization for underage drinking at $755 million annually.
Plenty of reasons exist for why teens drink, and there are no simple solutions. But some states and cities are finally fighting back, places like my hometown to New York where the governor recently launched a No Excuses campaign. Although school-based Zero-Tolerance policies and random-drug testing are ineffective, programs like ALERT, appear to be working. A recent report from the National Institute of Health indicates that teen alcohol use is trending downward (although vaping and opioids use is up).
But, my biggest concern, knowing that teen alcohol use kills 4,700 people annually - which is more than all illegal drugs combined – is one of the kids in my community will become a statistic.
© 2016 Charlie Claywell
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