Alcohol is technically illegal for people under the age of 21 to consume, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in America is by those between the ages of 12 and 20. Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by American teenagers. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) publishes that 60 percent of adolescents admit to having at least one alcoholic drink by the time they turn 18.
Underage alcohol abuse is considered to be a major public health concern within the US, contributing to injuries, accidents, crimes, poor school performance, and even death. Alcohol impairs judgment and interferes with normal brain function, and can even disrupt healthy brain development when introduced too young. The CDC warns that teens who drink alcohol before the age of 15 are around six times more likely to develop an addiction involving alcohol later in life than those who wait to start drinking until they are of the legal drinking age of 21.
There are many factors that can contribute to why a teen may begin drinking. Alcohol is cheap and easily accessible. Teens may not view alcohol as a dangerous substance, as they may see their parents and other adults consuming it responsibly. Teenagers often engage in risky behaviors, as parts of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision-making are not fully developed yet. It can also be harder for an adolescent to recognize that their actions will have consequences and what those might be.
Genetics and biological factors can heighten the risk that a person will drink and suffer from issues surrounding alcohol abuse. Alcohol can be consumed as a coping mechanism too, to temporarily mediate stress and anxiety.
Another major contributor to teen drinking is the influence of their peers, or peer pressure. It is often difficult for teenagers to ignore social pressures, and peer pressure can have a massive influence on an adolescent's behaviors and actions. Peer pressure can then have a significant impact on teenage alcohol consumption.
The Role of Peer Pressure in Teenage Drinking
A young person's social identity is often molded by their social group, and by their desire to fit in and be part of the "in crowd." As published by NYU Steinhardt, peer pressure involves encouragement from others who are of similar age to participate in certain behaviors or activities. Peer pressure is a massive factor in whether or not a person will engage in risky behaviors, which includes underage drinking.
Peer pressure can be both overt and inadvertent. Direct peer pressure involves one person to another, with things like offering someone a drink explicitly or encouraging a person to drink. This may happen in a social situation like a party. Drinks may be refilled without asking for them to be; a person may buy another a drink; or someone may give another a hard time if they are not drinking. It may be difficult for a young person to "just say no," as it may make them feel like an outcast. Others may even ostracize and socially isolate a person who decides not to drink. Direct peer pressure can also come in the form of an invitation to a social situation with the expectation that drinking will occur.
Peer pressure can also be less overt and more indirect. This form of peer pressure may occur as social modeling. For example, a group of popular students may all be drinking alcohol and they may be considered cool. Others will strive to also be seen in this same light and may then participate in the modeled behavior (drinking alcohol) to try and fit in with this social group, whether or not they are asked to join in.
The perception that "everyone is doing it" can also influence a teenager to consume alcohol so they are part of the crowd. It can be hard for teens to view themselves, or to be viewed by others, as different; if the perception is that everyone else is drinking alcohol then they are more likely to also drink alcohol.
Teenagers are also prone to exaggerating their exploits to make themselves appear cool or to advance themselves in the social hierarchy. It is entirely possible that they are not actually drinking as much as they claim to be; however, others may think that they are, and this social perception can lead to more drinking by those striving to fit in socially.
Social media plays a role, too. A study published by CBS News indicates that three-quarters of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who saw their peers "partying" on social media were more likely to then do the same. These images often portray people having a good time, and surveyed teens who saw them were more than three times as likely to try alcohol. This form of digital peer pressure can expand a person's peer circle and make people feel that they may be missing out if they are not also partaking.
Advertising and marketing can also influence perceptions, and show drinking in a more favorable light that can encourage underage drinking. Teens often look up to celebrities, and if they see them drinking, they may be more likely to try it, too.
Tips for Managing Peer Pressure
The perception that "everyone is doing it" is often false, as teenage drinking has actually been declining in recent years. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that over the past six years, binge drinking rates among teens between the ages of 12 and 20 have come down; however, 14% of this age demographic still report engaging in binge drinking in the prior month. Any amount of alcohol can be dangerous for a person who is under the legal drinking age of 21, and binge drinking (the pattern of drinking that raises a person's blood alcohol concentration up to or above 0.08 percent g/dL) can be particularly risky.
Preventative techniques and campaigns seek to educate the public, schools, and parents regarding the possible hazards of teenage drinking. There are also several ways that teenagers can manage the possible pressures that their peers may exert on them to drink, and learn how to stay sober despite peer pressure.
Some tips for managing peer pressure to drink include:
- Keep yourself busy with activities that are not conducive to alcohol consumption, such as sports, clubs, or other recreational events.
- Use your parents as an excuse; for example, tell your friends that they will smell the alcohol or explain the ways you will get in trouble if you get caught.
- Establish and maintain healthy relationships with other peers who don't drink and won't pressure you to do so.
- Be aware that people often "talk themselves up" and that they likely aren't drinking as much as they say they are. Be aware that social perceptions are often skewed.
- If you do find yourself at a party where there is drinking, ask for soda or fruit juice so you are drinking something. Others may be less likely to pressure you if they see you with a drink, even if it doesn't actually contain alcohol.
- Develop a plan for handling peer pressure when it arises. Think of things you can say ahead of time when offered alcohol so you won’t be caught off guard.
- Talk with your parents about drinking and how to handle difficult situations.
- Understand the risks and potential dangers of underage drinking, and make a decision to stay sober and hang out with others who will do the same.