Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance in the United States and it’s the most frequently used substance among adolescents. According to a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 29% of high school students drank in the past 30 days, and 14% binge drank. Drinking is even more common among underaged college students. Teen drinking can lead to several consequences, including car accidents, alcoholism, alcohol poisoning, social problems, assault, and other problems. Plus, early exposure to alcohol may lead to the misuse of alcohol and other drugs later in life. With so many dangerous effects of underage drinking, why do so many teens drink?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) reviewed research to determine some of the common reasons why adolescents drink alcohol. Here are some of the most common factors in adolescent alcohol use.
Brain development takes a long time in humans. Your body is fully grown before your brain finishes developing in your mid-20s. Risk-taking is a common behavior for young people, and some researchers believe this long brain-development period is a potential cause. It’s often said that teens think they are invincible. This may be because they understand that certain activities can give them a thrill without thinking about potential consequences. Teen brains may be slow to develop impulse control and long-term thinking. Drinking has clear short-term benefits like social acceptance and euphoria. But adolescents may have a hard time recognizing potential future consequences of drinking like substance use problems, school trouble, or legal issues.
Expectations play a major role in what some adolescents drink while others don’t. Teens that expect drinking to be a pleasurable experience are more likely to drink. Teens that don’t expect to be caught and face punitive consequences may be more likely to engage in risky behavior. According to NIAAA, beliefs about drug and alcohol among adolescents is an important area of research when it comes to determining risk factors for early alcohol misuse. Beliefs about alcohol generally develop early in life. NIAAA reports that children under nine typically have a negative view of alcohol but that view shifts in teenage years. Teens that drink usually emphasize the positive effects of alcohol while downplaying side effects and potential consequences.
Sensitivity and Tolerance
Younger people can handle some of the negative effects of alcohol better than adults. Researchers think that the differences in the way alcohol affects a 20-year-old and a 35-year-old may have to do with brain development. Teens and young adults are able to drink more without feeling negative effects like drowsiness, motor skill impairment, and hangovers. At the same time, adolescents seem to be more sensitive to effects like the release of social anxiety, which makes alcohol especially attractive to teens in social situations. While adults may experience both negative and positive effects when drinking, teens may only perceive positive effects unless they drink excessively or get in trouble.
Parents and Peer Influence
Environmental factors are major contributors to alcohol use in teens and young adults. Alcohol is commonly used, accepted, and promoted in U.S. culture. It’s the most commonly used recreational substance after caffeine, with more than 85% of adults over 18 trying alcohol at least once. Environmental factors may influence different ages to different degrees. Peer pressure is often seen as a significant influence on teens when it comes to drinking and other risky behavior. Peers can create an environment where underage drinking is perceived as a normal right of passage. In general, drinking is a social activity, and that cultural understanding of alcohol can start at a young age.
More than friends and classmates, boyfriends and girlfriends can have a strong influence on teen drinking. Teens that date older teens and young adults that drink are more likely to drink themselves, especially girls that date adult boyfriends, according to NIAA.
Though teen peers are a strong environmental factor, parents have a significant role. Parents can mitigate a teen’s exposure to alcohol and the household view of alcohol. Teens with parents that drink and view alcohol positively are more likely to drink. Teens with limited parental supervision may also be more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.
Genetics plays a major part in the development of a variety of biological and mental health issues. Even behavioral problems like substance use disorders can be rooted in genetics. Scientists can determine if something is influenced by genetics through the studies of families and especially twins. Traits and behaviors that are common between parents and offspring may be linked through genes.
However, some traits may be learned through environmental factors like teens that drink because they see their parents drink. However, studying children that are separated from their birth parents at a young age can help distinguish between genes and learning. However, studying twins can accomplish that even more. Fraternal twins share the same sets of genes. Twins that are separated early in life will have the same genes but different environments.
With these methods and others, researchers have found that genetics can influence teen drinking and the development of alcohol use disorders. Genetics can influence things like your tolerance to alcohol and how your body responds to alcohol. According to NIAA, the children of alcoholics are four to ten times more likely to have an alcohol use problem themselves. Children of alcoholics are more likely to start drinking when they’re young, and their progression to drinking problems is faster.
Genetics also plays a role in the development of mental health issues and conduct disorders that can contribute to alcoholism. Mental health problems like anxiety and depression occur alongside substance use disorders around 50% of the time. In many cases, these disorders and alcoholism share some of the same genetic and environmental risk factors.
Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders
While there are many factors that can contribute to teen drinking, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has also identified risk factors that can lead to substance use disorders. Substance use disorder involves chemical dependence and addiction to alcohol and drugs. If left untreated, addiction can take over your life, damaging your health, relationships, finances, and legal standing.
Teens can encounter risk factors in family life, school, friend groups, and internal struggles. For instance, children with a propensity toward aggressive behavior at a young age may be more likely to develop a substance use problem like alcoholism later in life. Risk factors can include a lack of parental supervision, substance abuse among peers, high drug availability at school, and poverty. However, NIDA also notes that there are also protective factors that may help prevent adolescents from developing substance use problems. Protective factors include the development of self-control, parental monitoring, emphasis on academics among peers, anti-drug policies at school, and a strong sense of community.