Have you ever wondered why teenagers are so inclined to participate in risky behaviors like drinking? Are you perplexed by the unpredictability and intensity of their emotions? You are not alone. Teen behavior has interested psychologists and biologists for years, because adolescence can be a baffling stage of life. But that doesn’t mean you have to worry. We have explanations!
The Surgeon General’s Report points out, adolescence is a difficult and unstable time. As they undergo puberty, teen’s bodies and brains face many changes that help them mature into adults. They struggle to gain independence, learn to identify with peers, and face new academic and social pressures.
If these factors are not bad enough, studies also show that the teen brain is wired to take risks. According to the Surgeon General’s Report, the parts of the brain that are “...responsible for self-regulation, judgment, reasoning, problem-solving, and impulse control” develop after the parts of the brain that drive our risk-taking and sensation seeking behaviors. This uneven development means that teen brains are literally wire to take risks. At the same time, they are not always well-equipped to make safe, cautious decisions. Add social and emotional elements to this situation, and you have all the ingredients for risky teen behavior.
On top of this development, it is also common for teens to believe that substance use is a much more common and socially acceptable than it actually is. For example, in 2019, about half of 11th and 12th grade students and 43% of 7-12th grade students overestimated the number of students in their grade that drank alcohol sometime in last 30 days.
Altogether, the many new stressors, developments, and perceptions that teens face, can lead to underage drinking as teens try to cope with the situations that life throws at them.
Why Should We Worry about Teen Drinking?
We should be just as concerned about teen alcohol use as we are about our teens using other substances, like meth or heroin. Alcohol affects the brain, changes behavior, and slows down the nervous system (which allows different parts of our body to communicate). Alcohol is a drug. However, alcohol can be obtained legally, and is so widely accepted in our society that almost everyone is exposed to it and/or uses it at some point in their life.
Did you know that this widespread use actually makes alcohol the most deadly drug in the United States? That’s right. More Americans die from alcohol misuse every year than from crack and cocaine overdoses. This happens simply because people use (and misuse) alcohol much more often than other drugs.
In fact, according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) alcohol caused, “...approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost...each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010…” As they explain, alcohol “...shorten[ed] the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.” The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also explains that, in 2015 alone, “[a]bout 1.3 million adults received treatment for [Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)]...at a specialized facility...”, and that “...alcohol misuse cost the United States $249.0 billion” in 2010 alone. Alcohol Use Disorders include Alcohol Dependence and Alcohol Abuse.
Effects of Alcohol on the Teen Brain
Because of the serious short and long-term effects of alcohol use and misuse, it is important that parents gain a better understanding of teenage drinking and brain development to dispel common misconceptions about teens and alcohol.
According to the CDC, “[y]outh who start drinking before age 15...are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21...”. The Surgeon General’s Report adds that alcohol’s ability to alter the teen brain may cause this dependency. Researchers have also found links between these alterations and the development of mental disorders like anxiety and depression later on in life.
Studies done on animals show that repetitive binge drinking in one’s adolescence affects memory and harms the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain in charge of “...self regulation, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, and impulse control”. This damage may make it even harder for teens to make rational, cautious decisions. Instead, they may simply continue participating in risky and dangerous behaviors.
Lastly, the Surgeon General’s Report points out that teens feel fewer of alcohol’s depressive symptoms, such as decreased coordination. This means that teens are more likely to pursue dangerous activities, like driving, while intoxicated. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 27 people die daily “...as a result of drunk driving crashes.” With 365 days in a year, this equates to 9,855 deaths per year. One thing parents can do to prevent alcohol related deaths is to restrict their child's access to alcohol.
Teen Alcohol Trends in Cortland County
Alcohol is the most commonly used and misused drug among young people in the United States. Things are no different here in Cortland County, where in 2019, the percentage of students in grades 7-12 reported use of alcohol in the past 30 days is higher than for all other common substances. Past 30 day alcohol use was reported at 21%, followed by 14.4% reporting marijuana use, 3.6% reporting smoking cigarettes, and 3.2% reporting using prescription drugs without a prescription. Furthermore, a higher percentage of 9th-12th graders in Cortland County report using alcohol in the past 30 days (34.3%) than 9th-12th graders in both the United States (29.8%) and New York State (27.1%). State and national data is from 2017, the most recent data available for comparison.
In Cortland County, the percentage of students who report lifetime use (using alcohol, more than just a sip, at any point in their lifetime) of alcohol has fluctuated between 39% and 46%, without any noted changes over the last four years. Similarly, the number of students who report past 30 day use has remained stable, ranging between 19% and 23% over the same period.
Past 30 day alcohol use varies even more interestingly when looking at the survey sample by male and female and urban versus rural areas of the County.
The percentage of females, across all grade levels, who report past 30 day use of alcohol (22.6%) is higher than the percentage of males (19.3%). The most noticeable deviation occurs in the 10th grade, with 32.5% of females reporting past 30 day use versus only 24.7% of males.
Across all grade levels, with the exception of 9th grade, students living in rural areas report higher past 30 day alcohol use. Countywide, students living in rural areas had higher past 30 day use rates (24.4%) than urban students (16.8%). It is even more noteworthy that double the percentage of rural 12th graders report past 30 days use compared to urban 12th graders.
Alcohol use in 2019 is generally higher for females, older students, and students living in rural areas. A higher percentage of female students (12.6%) report binge drinking on at least one day in the past 30 days compared to male students (10.7%). Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks on an occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days. Binge drinking is highest among 17-18 year old female students (24.1%).
Students living in rural areas (14.6%) of Cortland County report binge drinking at higher rates than students living in more urban areas (8.9%) of the County.
Risky drinking guidelines:
Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for children and young people underage. This is particularly true for those under 15 years of age. Single occasion is the most common type of drinking for young people (12.9% of students in Cortland County report drinking on 1-2 occasions in the past 30 days), most students do not drink regularly.
Underage drinking can lead to a number of negative consequences for youth, including harming themselves or others.
In the past year, getting sick to their stomach/throwing up (22.3%) or being hungover (28.1%) were the personal consequences reported at the highest rates countywide by students who have used alcohol at least once in their lifetime. In addition, students report problems with personal relationships (14.8%) and having problems with friends (13.5%) at least one time in the past year due to drinking.
Female students report higher negative personal consequences from drinking in the past year compared to male students except for getting into physical fights. The most concerning stat is the number of female students reporting getting into a situation they regretted (14.1%) compared to 7% of males and blacking out after drinking (18.9%) compared to 12.6% of males.
How are the data collected
Every year, Cortland County students in grades 7-12 are surveyed to find out about their drug use and environmental risk and protective factors in the NYS Youth Development Survey administered by Cortland Area Communities That Care. They are asked about alcohol, tobacco, other illicit and licit drug use, how much they use, how they use and their attitudes to alcohol and other drug use.
This survey has been conducted since 2001. The most recent survey included 2,002 young people aged from 13 to 18 years from each of the five school districts in Cortland County. Each year surveys are checked for validity and reliability, surveys determined to be invalid are not included in the data.
Parents Play a Big Role in Teen Alcohol Use
Environmental factors such as sources/locations of alcohol use, prevention messaging, parental communication, and perceptions of peer/parent standards and expectations surrounding underage drinking can influence alcohol use in youth.
So where are youth in Cortland County drinking and getting access to alcohol? The answer to both questions is at home. Students in Cortland County who have used alcohol in their lifetime overwhelmingly report drinking alcohol at their home (57.1%) or at someone else’s home (53.3%) as the most common locations for alcohol use, followed by at an open area like a park (12.2%).
This highest percentage of students who have used alcohol in their lifetime selected the following sources of alcohol: from home with their parent’s permission (20.7%), from home without their parent’s permission (18.0%), and from someone they know age 21 or older (17.8%).
Why does this matter? One of the most important things a parent can do to reduce their teens drinking is to restrict their access to alcohol. One study indicated that teens' belief that alcohol was easily available at home was the single factor that predicted an increase in youth alcohol use and related problems two years later.
One of the most important things a parent can do to reduce their teens drinking is to restrict their access to alcohol.
Why do parents supply their kids with alcohol and let them drink at home? Many parents falsely believe by providing their children with alcohol and letting them drink at home they can teach them to drink responsibly or prevent some of the negative consequences associated with underage drinking. However, studies show that youth who are supplied alcohol by their parents had higher odds of binge drinking, alcohol related harm, and symptoms of alcohol use disorder than youth who had no supply of alcohol. In fact, studies show there is no protective benefits from parental supply of alcohol.
This reality is reflected in the data we collect from students here in Cortland County. In terms of access, about 30% of students that have used alcohol in their lifetime think it is hard to access alcohol, while 71% of non alcohol users think it is hard to access alcohol.
What should parents do? Parents can impose consequences such as: taking away privileges, adding chores, taking away cell phones etc. when they find out their children are drinking. The impact of perceived availability of alcohol can be mitigated by strict parental rules regarding alcohol use at home. However, of students who report drinking, countywide, 38% of students report not getting caught, with 24.7% reporting no consequences, 23.5% reporting major consequences and 13.8% reporting minor consequences after being caught drinking. In addition, a higher percentage of students who have not used alcohol in their lifetime think they would be caught by their parents (86%) versus 46% of students that have used alcohol in their lifetime. This trend is similar for binge drinking, with 61% of non-binge drinkers reporting they would be caught by their parents if they drank versus 22% of binge drinkers. This data reinforces the idea teens are less likely to use alcohol or other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and enforcing fair and consistent consequences.
Social Host Ordinance
So how are we decreasing teen drinking? One way that Cortland County specifically targets teen alcohol use is through the social host ordinance. As Matthew Whitman, Director of Cortland Area Communities That Care, explains, Cortland County’s Social Host Ordinance “closes the loophole of New York State’s law”. According to New York State law, an adult can only be held responsible for teen drinking on their property if someone specifically names them as alcohol provider.
However, in Cortland County, those holding the event at which minors are drinking are held responsible for those teens’ behavior, whether or not they are named as the person who provided the alcohol. This provides a strong reason for parents to not allow teen drinking at social events and parties.
Why Have a Minimum Drinking Age of 21?
Beyond the Social Host Ordinance, a higher legal drinking age requirement is also an important tool in decreasing teen alcohol use. Having a higher drinking age accomplishes several goals.
Delaying the Onset of Alcohol Use: A minimum drinking age of 21 helps keep alcohol out of younger teens’ hands. For instance, an 18 year-old is more likely to socialize and want to drink with kids as young as 15 than a 21-year old is. In other words, a higher minimum drinking age generally means that underage drinking takes place among an older, more developmentally mature group of teens. Thus, much younger teens are denied an avenue of easy access to alcohol.
Decreased Deaths: Mothers Against Drunk Driving also points out that there have been fewer alcohol-related deaths since the minimum drinking age has increased. They state that the higher drinking age has cut drunk driving fatalities in half.
Decreased Risky Behaviors: The Federal Trade Commission adds that, decreasing teens’ access to alcohol also helps cut down on acute intoxication and risky behaviors (like physical fights) that lead to emergency room visits. Decreasing teens’ access to alcohol also helps prevent risky sexual behaviors, like having unprotected sex or having sex with a stranger.
De-Normalizing Alcohol: Part of the reason that alcohol is such a large issue today is that it is so widely accepted in our society. However, having a higher legal drinking age sends the clear message that underage drinking is neither okay nor acceptable. A higher drinking age helps impress upon teens that drinking is a serious decision that can turn dangerous and deadly in excess.
Why the “European Model” Does Not Work
Because excessive youth drinking is so prevalent, many Americans wonder if we should look to European countries as a model. They argue that European teens learn to drink responsibly because they have the opportunity to use alcohol in family settings from a young age. Many believe that this early exposure also helps remove the forbidden status of alcohol that makes it seem so appealing to rebellious youth. Shouldn’t teens who grow up with alcohol learn that they can take it or leave it? Well, studies show that this myth in not based in fact. According to “Youth Drinking Rates”, teens in European countries tend to drink much more frequently and get drunk much younger than teens in the United States.
Europe Vs. the United States
Drinking rates in past 30 days:
Compared to European countries, the US had the lowest teen drinking rate of all, except Iceland, within in the past 30 days. While only about 33 out of every 100 teens had at least one drink within the past 30 days in the U.S, European rates ranged from 42% (42 out of every 100) teens drinking within the past 30 days in Norway and 80% (80 out of every 100) teens having at least one drink in the past 30 days in Denmark and Austria.
Intoxication of 15 and 16 year-olds in the last 30 days:
The U.S. also has fewer cases of intoxication among 15 and 16 year olds than over half of Europe’s countries. About 18 out of every 100 15-16 year olds in the United States had gotten drunk within the past 30 days of this survey. 20 out of every 100 15-16 year olds reported being drunk within the past 30 days in Switzerland and Norway. And finally, 49 out of every 100 15-16 year olds in Denmark had been drunk within the past 30 days.
Intoxication before the age of 13:
Besides Italy and Portugal, the U.S. (along with Belgium and the Netherlands) has the lowest rate of intoxication before the age of 13. Only 8 out of every 100 15-16 year olds reported being drunk before the age of 13 in the U.S. This means that less than a tenth of U.S. teens had been drunk before reaching 13. After the U.S., Switzerland, Iceland, and France have the next lowest rate of youth intoxication with 9 out of every 100 of their 15-16 year olds having been intoxicated before the age of 13. From here, youth intoxication rates steadily climb until they hit a high of 25 out of every 100 15-16 year olds having been drunk before 13 in Denmark.
Of the European countries for which there is data, the only one that has a legal drinking age of at least 20 is Iceland. Iceland was also the only country to have a lower teen drinking rate within the past 30 days than the U.S. and also had the second lowest rate of intoxication before the age of 13. On the other hand, countries with a legal drinking age of 16 or 18 typically saw much higher rates of teen drinking at both a young age and on a regular basis.
How to Talk About Alcohol with your Teen
One of the most important things you can do as a parent is talk to your teen. It doesn’t even matter if you drank when you were younger. It is always best to set clear boundaries with your teens and explain the risks of drinking and why there is a minimum age requirement. You can even use your own experiences with alcohol as an example of what you don’t want your teen to do.
Tips for Talking to Your Teens
Start talking with your children about alcohol before they reach adolescence so that they are prepared to face social pressures when they hit puberty.
Talk with your teen(s) often: Having one conversation is not enough because each time your child undergoes a stressful life transition, they will encounter new pressures to drink and have more motivation to self-medicate. For this reason, you should talk with your adolescent when they transition between the following stages:
Middle school and high school: This period of time is crucial because this transition may signal changes in peer groups, increased social and academic stress, and developmental changes that may lead to riskier behavior and increased desire to seek adventure.
When they get their licence: Make sure your teen is aware of the dangers and legal implications of drinking and driving when they get their permit and license. Drinking and driving is not a game. It can lead to injury and death.
During their senior year in high school: Because teens are preparing to face the social and academic pressures of college, it is especially important that they know how to stay safe in risky situations.
Finally, remember that you are your teen’s role model and that they will follow your behaviors towards alcohol. Drinking responsibly, limiting the amount of alcohol in your home, and creating clear rules regarding this substance will all help prevent your teen from premature, illegal, and dangerous drinking.
In all, adolescence can be a tumultuous and stressful time as teens transition from childhood to adulthood physically, mentally, and emotionally. With brains that are wired to take risks and the impression that substance use is the norm, it is not surprising that many teens turn to alcohol as a way to deal with social and academic pressures. Consequently, it is our responsibility to teach our teens about the negative effects of alcohol and limit their access to this substance. Some policies that have helped reduce teen drinking in Cortland County include the Social Host Ordinance and the nationwide increased legal drinking age. Paired with family discussion, reducing access, and setting clear rules around alcohol, these policies can continue to decrease risky teen behaviors and save lives while they are at it.