Why Teenagers Drink Alcohol Despite the Risks

Why Teenagers Drink Alcohol Despite the Risks

Statistics show that underage drinking is become more and more common and that the average age at which teenagers begin to drink is getting younger. In 1965, the average age of onset for teenage alcohol use was 17.5 years, but by 2003 it had dropped to 14 years. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 50 percent of young people have had at least one drink by the time they are 15 and 70 percent have had a drink by the time they are 18.

The consequences of underage drinking can be severe. Around 5,000 underage people die each year from alcohol-related vehicle collisions, homicides, suicides and poisoning, as well as accidents such as drowning that involved alcohol use. Underage drinking is also a factor in around 190,000 visits to the emergency room each year.

Underage drinkers are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of sexual assault and more likely to engage in early sexual activity. There is also evidence that underage drinking can impact brain development and result in long-term impairment.

Why Teenager Drink

Nevertheless, teenagers continue to put themselves and others at risk by experimenting with alcohol. There are a number of factors that contribute to teenage drinking, from developmental changes that every adolescent experiences to hereditary factors that make some teens more susceptible to substance use:

Heredity. Genetics are known to play an important role in determining who is at greatest risk for substance use disorders. Children of alcoholics are more likely to begin drinking at a young age and are also more likely to become problem drinkers more quickly. Overall, children of alcoholics are between four and 10 times more likely to become alcoholics than people who do not have a history of alcoholism in their family.

Expecting positive outcomes. Studies have found that many children undergo a crucial shift in their attitudes toward alcohol during adolescence. Before the age of nine, most children believe that drinking alcohol is likely to have negative effects. However, by age 13 the majority of teenagers believe that drinking alcohol is likely to cause positive, enjoyable feelings. Understandably, teenagers who expect positive experiences from drinking are much more likely to try alcohol than those who expect negative experiences.

Risk-taking. Adolescence is a time of taking risks and trying new experiences. Although scientists do not fully understand why teenagers are so inclined to take risks, most believe that brain development and changes that begin in adolescence and continue into young adulthood result in incomplete communication between different parts of the brain. In turn, this means that teenagers are more likely to act impulsively without fully weighing the potential consequences.

Sensitivity to alcohol. Physiological differences between teenagers and young adults allows them to experience the positive feelings associated with alcohol drinking without suffering many of the negative consequences. Teenagers can frequently drink more than adults before becoming drowsy, uncoordinated or depressed and are often able to avoid hangovers and feelings of withdrawal. Teenagers also seem to be more sensitive to the positive feelings associated with alcohol. This combination of physiological advantages may explain why teenagers are so much more likely to binge drink and why many teenagers become regular drinkers after experimenting.

Psychiatric problems. Like adults, many teenage drinkers have underlying psychiatric issues that lead them to self-medicate with alcohol. Teenagers who suffer from depression or anxiety or who struggle in social situations are more likely to develop alcohol use problems. These teenagers may become reliant on alcohol in order to function in social situations or to help relieve feelings associated with a psychiatric disorder.

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