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What Is Underage Drinking?

Underage drinking is defined as the consumption of alcoholic beverages by someone who is younger than the legal drinking age. In most of the United States the legal drinking age is 21 (except in Puerto Rico where it is 18), meaning that someone who was 20 years old or younger cannot legally drink alcohol (or 17 years old or younger in Puerto Rico).

There are many reasons why underage drinking is illegal. For one thing, alcohol impacts the developing brains of adolescents differently from the brain’s of adults. Underage drinking can negatively impact brain development for the rest of the drinker’s life. Additionally, the younger an individual begins drinking, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, later in life.

Perhaps the most important reason why underage drinking is a crime is that adolescents have not yet fully matured mentally or emotionally, are much more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and often have not learned to fully understand or deal with the consequences of their actions. Because alcohol can cause emotional instability, reduce judgment, and impede clear thinking, it can be especially dangerous for adolescents.

Underage Drinking Statistics

Underage drinking accounts for approximately 5,000 adolescent deaths and $24 billion in damages annually. Of the 5,000 people 21 and under who die from alcohol-related injuries each year, drunk-driving accidents are responsible for 1,900, homicide/violence is responsible for 1,600, and suicide is responsible for 300.

The CDC reports 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States is by drinkers aged 12 to 20 years of age, with underaged drinkers consuming more drinks per sitting than their adult counterparts. The CDC also noted in 2017 that 30% of high schoolers drank alcohol, 14% binge drank; 6% drove while drinking, and 17% were passengers of someone who drove under the influence.

Consequences Of Underage Drinking

Underaged drinking has both short-term and long-term consequences. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse conducted a survey on the relationship between underaged drinking and alcoholism. The results concluded early exposure to alcohol abuse leads to a higher lifetime risk of alcoholism.

Other consequences of underage drinking include:

  • A higher likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder
  • Poor academic performance
  • Increased risk of committing or being a victim of assault or sexual assault
  • Risky sexual behaviors, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy
  • Avoiding family events to drink
  • Irritability/moodiness when not drinking
  • Developing friendships with people who drink
  • Higher risk of suicide
  • Vulnerability to peer pressure
  • Jail time and fines
  • Property damage
  • Brain, kidney, and liver damage

Risk Factors Associated With Underage Drinking

There is not one single factor that determines whether an individual will engage in underage drinking, or to what extent they will engage in it. Rather there are a large number of factors that interact in a complex way.

For underage drinkers, peer pressure and exposure to alcohol through advertising can be a factor in drinking. Media is a powerful way to transfer the ideas of advertisers into the minds of viewers. Studies have confirmed advertising does impact how underaged adolescents view and consume alcohol. Music glamorizing alcohol excess can also influence how teens view alcohol use.

Individuals who have experienced trauma as a child have a higher likelihood of engaging in underage drinking. Similar to adults, having unresolved trauma can result in complex attitudes, perceptions, and emotional and mental distress.

Erratic or early aggressive childhood personalities put children at a higher risk of drinking and abusing drugs compared to other children. Children who have conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety disorders are more prone to drinking.

Seeing a parent drink puts children and young adults at greater risk of alcoholism. Both because of the trauma of living in an unstable household and the deliberate or subconscious replicating of parental behaviors, it can be easy to develop the same patterns parents have exhibited.

Warning Signs Of Underage Drinking

Underaged drinking has several warning signs that can help parents, friends, siblings, and other loved ones identify when it is occurring. Common warning signs of underage drinking include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Irritability
  • Combining alcohol with other drugs
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Developing an alcohol tolerance
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Changes in body weight
  • Inability to control one’s drinking
  • Increasing one’s amount of alcohol
  • Binge drinking
  • Heavy drinking
  • Hanging out with a new set of friends
  • Vomiting in the morning

Stop Underaged Alcoholism Today

Discovering your teen has a problem drinking can be upsetting. There is treatment available with support groups for underaged boys and girls. Underaged drinkers can receive hands-on counseling, effective treatments, and bond with like-minded people for transformation. If you have any rehab-related questions or would like to discuss treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Krystina Murray | Last Updated: September 30, 2021

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    Krystina Murray

    Digital Content Writer

    Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University. She has over 7 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 17 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, cooking, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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