The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that an estimated 16 million people in the United States have alcohol use disorder (AUD) – an addiction to alcohol, specifically. While 15.1 million of these individuals are adults, there are about 623,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 who have a diagnosable AUD. Many of these young people abuse alcohol due to social pressure or stress at school or home, and this abuse can lead to ongoing struggles with alcohol and other drugs later in life.
Alcohol consumption can cause brain damage, along with damage to other organs in the body. Adolescents who drink may fail classes, experience other academic or social problems, and may even deal with legal issues.
Juvenile Alcohol Abuse Causes Severe Problems
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that adolescent alcohol abuse leads to severe harm and death for thousands of teenagers annually.
- About 4,300 teens die every year because of underage drinking.
- Young people between the ages of 12 and 20 consume 11% of alcohol in the US, even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal.
- About 90% of that alcohol consumption is in the form of binge drinking, putting teens at risk of physical accidents and alcohol poisoning death.
- In 2010, there were about 189,000 visits to the emergency room by people under the age of 21 due to alcohol poisoning.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) for 2015 found that:
- 33% of teens drank alcohol at all in the past 30 days before the survey
- 18% binge drank alcohol
- 8% drove a car after drinking too much
- 20% rode with a driver who had been drinking, typically a peer
Kids who abuse alcohol are at elevated risk for physical, behavioral, academic, legal, and social harm.
- Adolescents who drink alcohol are more likely to skip school and fail grades.
- Teenagers who abuse alcohol are more likely to become aggressive and fight with peers or attempt suicide.
- Most states have a zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking and driving, so adolescents who drink and drive are likely to have ongoing legal struggles.
- Teenagers who abuse alcohol are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, become victims of sexual assault, or be in a car accident.
- Teens who begin abusing alcohol are likely to experiment with other drugs, which may lead to substance abuse struggles later in life.
- Adolescents who drink alcohol are six times more likely than non-drinking peers to develop alcohol use disorder later in life.
Brain Damage from Adolescent Alcohol Abuse
Intoxicating substances like alcohol have a much greater impact on developing brains compared to adult brains. While high-volume substance abuse can damage adult brains over time, the brains of adolescents are at much greater risk for stunted growth, developmental abnormalities, and mental illness from drinking less alcohol because these structures are still forming.
Teenagers are more likely to binge drink (consume more than four or five drinks in a two-hour span) compared to their adult counterparts. A study published in 2010 detailed a group of adolescents, ages 12-14, who were studied as they began participating in social binge drinking two or three times per month; they had worse cognition over time and performed more poorly on memory tests than their non-drinking counterparts. Adolescent girls were more likely to perform poorly on tests involving spatial functioning while boys struggled with tests involving attention.
The study also examined teenagers’ white matter development and found that the teens who binge drank had marks or irregularities in their white matter development while their sober counterparts did not show these signs. White matter is important for communication between brain regions; when these regions could not communicate as well, the teenagers were more likely to do poorly on tests involving verbal or mathematical material.
Other medical research has found that the prefrontal cortex is especially hit hard if an adolescent drinks while that brain region is developing. This region is involved in working memory, voluntary physical movements, impulse control, learning social cues and rules, spatial reasoning, long-term planning, and decision-making.
Changes in how neurotransmitters are released, because of the presence of an intoxicating substance like alcohol, can lead to changes in the reward centers of the brain. Early in life, these changes can become permanent structural changes, leading to problems with mental health, addiction, or behavioral struggles throughout life.
Physical Harm from Abusing Alcohol as a Teen
Changes to brain structures are the most difficult to treat; however, among adolescents who drink too much, damage to the endocrine system and the liver can lead to long-term, chronic health issues. Alcohol is known to damage the liver if a person consumes a lot of alcohol for months or years, so adolescents who abuse this substance are at much greater risk for liver-related problems, including alcoholic hepatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
The endocrine system in teenagers plays a very important role in physical development. Damaging this system means that a person can cause harm to their reproductive system, physical growth, and emotional wellbeing. If alcohol changes how the body releases estrogen or testosterone during puberty, then the child may stunt their growth; harm the development of bones, muscles, organs, and their immune system; and they may have problems with infertility later in life.
Crime and Legal Problems among Adolescents Who Abuse Alcohol
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that, in general, alcohol and drug abuse are responsible for 80 percent of offenses that lead to incarceration in the United States. These offenses include drinking and driving, property damage, possession of drugs or alcohol, and public order offenses like public intoxication. Among incarcerated people who had a mental health struggle, 81 percent reported abusing alcohol in the month before they were incarcerated.
Four out of every five teenagers in the juvenile justice system at the state level were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they are arrested. Every year, about 600,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who is drunk. Around 95 percent of all campus crimes involve alcohol, consumed by the perpetrator, victim, or both.
Treatment Specifically for Adolescents
Adolescents may be compelled by state or local law, their school, or their parents to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. In some cases, teenagers may ask for help finding treatment, but in most instances, they will attend treatment involuntarily. This does not mean treatment will be ineffective. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that there are several adolescent-specific approaches to behavioral treatment to end alcohol or drug abuse, and they are effective, regardless of whether the teen enters treatment voluntarily or involuntarily.
Behavioral approaches that work well for teenagers include outpatient rehabilitation programs, as long as the adolescent is safe at home. The flexibility of these behavioral programs means the teen can remain in school while also getting help for their substance abuse.
Many teens may struggle with mental health problems, or they may have parents, guardians, or siblings who also struggle with addiction or mental illness. Environmental factors contribute to substance abuse struggles, so family therapy can be a deeply important part of addressing adolescent substance abuse.
Recovery high schools are committed to a sober, supportive environment. This means that adolescents can attend a school focused on sobriety, away from environments and peer groups that may encourage a relapse back into alcohol abuse. Peer and mutual support groups with fellow adolescents can provide emotional support for recovery. Home-based care can help adolescents who have physical or mental ailments associated with alcohol abuse.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides an online treatment finder and a phone hotline that parents or guardians can use f they have concerns about their child abusing alcohol or drugs. This treatment finder can help concerned parents find nearby treatment options specific to their teenager’s needs.
Other programs that may offer treatment support include the National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health (NACBH) and the federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS), Office of Adolescent Health; this federal department provides online information specifically about adolescent alcohol abuse, with a list of treatment resources.