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The State of Underage Binge Drinking in the United States

by | Last updated Mar 30, 2021 at 9:31AM | Published on Nov 13, 2020 | Alcohol Addiction, Drug Addiction

state of underage binge drinking

Underage binge drinking is a substantial public health problem in the United States. Alcohol is by far the most widely abused substance by youth and adults in the country. The effects of underage drinking can affect everyone and often lead to accidental death, overdose, injuries, violence, and more. Let’s take a closer look at the state of underage binge drinking in the United States and see our options to prevent this from happening.

Quick Underage Drinking Statistics

It’s not uncommon for young people to drink alcohol. Even with restrictions, kids can easily get their hands on alcohol. Some people start binge drinking at the young age of twelve-years-old. These binging behaviors usually continue well into their young adulthood and turn into full-blown alcohol addictions by becoming adults. Here are some shocking statistics about underage drinking:

  • By age 15, almost 30% of teens have had at least one drink in their lifetime.
  • By age 18, that number climbs to at least 58%.
  • In 2018, over 7 million young people ages 12-20 reported they drank alcohol in the past month alone.
  • More adolescents use alcohol (55.6%) than cigarettes (11.4%) or marijuana (47.3%).
  • Young people consume more than 90% of their alcohol by binge drinking.
  • People ages 12-20 drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States.
  • In 2018, 4.3 million young people reported binge drinking at least once in the past month. Of those, over 861,000 said binge drinking five or more days over the past month.
  • Binge drinking habits escalate 4950% from ages 12 to 16.
  • Girls are 150% more likely to start binge drinking at an early age than boys.
underage binge drinking infographic

Why Do Young People Drink?

Of course, as kids mature, it’s normal for them to experiment with different things and start taking risks. Underage drinking is a risk that attracts many adolescents and teens. Most of them want to try alcohol but are unaware of how addictive it can be or its lasting effects. If we are honest, alcohol is the one addictive substance most kids see as approachable and tolerated. After all, odds are they see their parents drink occasionally, thus subconsciously minimizing drinking risks. Other common reasons why people drink include peer pressure, stress, or desire to become independent.

Another interesting fact is that most adolescents sort of stumble upon the opportunity to drink. In a 2018 study, over 96% of young people aged 12-14 reported they drank alcohol because they got it for free. Most of the time, a family member gave it to them or found it at home.

Understanding Binge Drinking Among Children

The concept of binge drinking for children is quite different from adults. For adults, binge drinking means drinking excessive amounts of alcohol within two hours that blood alcohol concentration levels reach 0.08 g/dL. For adults, that means four drinks for women and five drinks for men. This is determined by what they’re drinking. For example, a drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

However, for children, the number of drinks they need to reach binge drinking levels is less:

  • Ages 9-13: About three drinks
  • 14-15: About four drinks
  • Ages 16-17: Close to five drinks
  • For girls ages 9-17: About three drinks

Long-term Effects of Underage Drinking

The immediate effects of underage drinking are fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, alcohol is a factor in the death of 4,358 young people under age 21. Of those deaths, over 1,500 were from motor vehicle crashes, 1,300 from homicides, and close to 500 from suicides.

Most people are familiar with other immediate effects of alcohol, such as injuries, impaired judgment, increased risk of physical and sexual assault, school problems, and other problems, including trouble with the law.

However, not everyone is familiar with the damage alcohol does to the adolescent brain. Research shows that when people start drinking before the age of 15, they’re 4 times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol addiction at some point in their lives. Additionally, the effects of alcohol on a young brain can be permanent.

Our brains continue to develop well into our 20s. So, alcohol can directly impact brain development, affecting structure and function. Underage drinking can cause cognitive and learning problems, make the brain more susceptible to alcohol use disorder, and even lead to permanent memory loss in some cases.

Can We Prevent Underage Drinking?

It can be challenging to prevent underage drinking. First of all, we have to consider the different risk factors that play a huge role in developing drinking habits. Genetics, personality, level of risk, social factors, and environmental factors all play a significant role in creating an addiction.

However, some approaches can help prevent underage drinking and promote healthier habits, including:

  • Environmental interventions: these are preventative measures that we can take at a state and local level. This is all about making alcohol harder to get for underaged kids. Keeping the minimum drinking age, making alcohol more expensive, and enacting zero-tolerance laws can help prevent underage drinking.
  • Individual interventions: these are done at a one-to-one level. The idea is to change the way kids think about alcohol and help them develop the skills to resist social pressure to drink. Usually, this kind of intervention is done by parents, family members, or counselors.
  • School interventions: Some schools have programs that provide students with information, education, and skills to learn about alcohol and its risks. However, it also provides them with opportunities and motivation to remain alcohol-free.
  • Family interventions: In this case, parents are encouraged to set and enforce clear rules against drinking. However, more than setting rules, it’s about having open communication about alcohol, drugs, and sex, so kids don’t feel the necessity to explore independently.

Warning Signs of Underage Drinking 

It can be challenging for parents to notice underage drinking signs, mostly because the teenage years are a time of change, growth, and behavioral changes. Sometimes parents can notice the signs of underage drinking and mislabel them as “growing pains.” It’s paramount to pay close attention to even the slightest changes to recognize underage drinking. Some of those warning signs include:

  • Changes in mood, mostly anger and irritability
  • Behavioral problems at school
  • Sudden academic problem
  • Rebelliousness
  • A sudden change of friend groups
  • Low energy levels
  • Less interest in activities, care for appearance, or previously enjoyable hobbies
  • Finding alcohol among their things
  • Smelling alcohol in their breath
  • Problems concentrating or remembering
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems
  • Suddenly asking for a sip of your drink
  • Constant talk about drinking or alcohol in general

Start asking yourself these questions: What are the long-term side effects of alcohol abuse? Is it dangerous? How much alcohol is your child consuming? How long have they been using it? Do they want to stop? If so, what type of help is best suited for them?

How Parents Can Help

Parents can play a massive role in shaping children’s attitudes toward drinking. Research shows that children whose parents are actively involved in their lives are less likely to drink. On the other hand, research also shows that children with parents who binge drink are more likely to drink heavily.

  • As parents, you can talk to children about the risks of alcohol and binge drinking by:
  • Drinking responsibly if you choose to drink
  • Serving as positive role models around substances
  • Not making alcohol readily available at the house
  • Getting to know your kid’s friends
  • Having regular conversations about life
  • Connecting with other parents about the importance of talking about heavy drinking
  • Supervising parties to ensure there is no alcohol
  • Encouraging children to participate in activities that don’t involve alcohol

Finding Help

Reaching a drug and alcohol treatment facility for assistance is an excellent way to seek yourself and your child. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our coordinators can answer all your doubts and help you stage an intervention if you need one to help your child seek treatment. Alcohol addiction can be a life-threatening disease with long-term health consequences. Seeking help today is paramount for your child’s long-term recovery.

Consider speaking with other parents or with school teachers about your child. They might be able to provide you with some guidance and support. Underage drinking appears to be an issue very few can control. However, knowing what to do if your child is an underaged drinker can give you the tools to help them start navigating their recovery journey. Don’t let your child’s life pass by for a drink. They might not realize how alcohol can ruin their life, but with your encouragement and support, they can potentially fight back and live a healthy life after all.

We can help you figure out the best substance abuse and mental health treatment program and healthcare path to help your child get better. Our programs incorporate support groups, family therapy that allows patients to spend time with their families, and more. If you believe your child is abusing alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out for assistance and guidance today.

Lighthouse Editorial Team

Lighthouse Editorial Team

Our editorial team includes content experts that contribute to Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s blog. Editors and medical experts review our blogs for accuracy and relevance. We consistently monitor the latest research from SAMHSA and NIDA to provide you with the most comprehensive addiction-related content.
Medical Disclaimer:

Lighthouse Recovery Institute aims to improve the quality of life for anyone struggling with substance use or mental health disorder. We provide fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their outcomes. The material we publish is researched, cited, edited, and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide in our posts is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.

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