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Alcohol Addiction in Teenagers & Young Adults: Stats, Risks, & Prevention

Although the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, many young adults have had alcohol before they reach that age. Underage drinking is a nationwide problem, and in 2019, 7 million people between the ages of 12-20 reported that they drank “more than just a few sips” of alcohol.1 While this may not seem dire, early use and misuse of alcohol in teenagers and young adults can lead to serious problems including issues later in life.

Underage Drinking Statistics

So, just how many teenagers drink alcohol? Underage drinking is a significant health problem in the United States.2 Annually, excessive underage alcohol consumption causes 3,900 deaths.3 What’s more, alcohol continues to be the most common substance used by U.S. youth, with a higher proportion of underaged individuals using alcohol instead of tobacco, marijuana, or other drugs.4

Underage alcohol use begins early, with 15% of those who reported drinking underage saying they started before they were 13 years of age.5 Additionally, about 1.8 million teens between 12 and 17 years of age tried alcohol for the first time in 2021.6

The prevalence of young adult and teen alcohol misuse varies greatly by age group. For example, 46% of 16-17 year olds reported using alcohol once in their lives, while only 25% of 14-15 year olds reported that they have tried alcohol once in their lives.7 By the 8th grade, about 1 in 4 (24%) of students had used alcohol, and by the end of 12th grade, 59% of students had done so.8 Of college-aged students (18-24), 53% reported drinking alcohol within the past month.

When it comes to young adult and teenage alcohol misuse, binge drinking is a major issue. In fact, binge drinking, which is defined as drinking five or more drinks per occasion for men and four or more drinks for women, typically begins in adolescence.9 Underage drinkers (aged 12-20) typically drink 4-5 drinks per occasion, which is almost double the 2-3 drinks adults (older than 25) drinks.

Most alcohol consumption by underage drinkers takes place during “binge” episodes with more than 90% of all alcoholic drinks consumed by teens and young adults through binge drinking.9,10 Binge drinking can be especially dangerous for teens and young adults because it is associated with health risks including alcohol poisoning, blackouts and injury, car accidents and deaths, and physical and sexual assault.9

Teenage Alcohol Consumption: Why Do Teens Drink?

There are many different reasons why teens and young adults consume alcohol. Some of the reasons for underage drinking and alcohol misuse in young adults include:11

  • Peer pressure and acceptance: If teens and young adults see peers drinking, they’ll want to also drink to be included and have a social life.
  • Mental health and self-medicating: Alcohol use and mental health are often connected. Teens and young adults may be experiencing difficulties at school or home—bullying, divorce, moving, loneliness—and they may decide to drink alcohol to try to manage their struggles.
  • Stress: Life can be challenging for adolescents with worries about academics, extracurriculars, and their future, so they may use alcohol to cope.
  • Pop culture: Drinking is often in advertising. Commercials and ads show attractive people enjoying themselves and having fun and that is appealing to young people.
  • Curiosity: Teens and young adults may find themselves curious about the effects of alcohol and so they may engage in experimentation.
  • Rebellion: Adolescents may want to act out, to pull away from their parents, and drinking alcohol can be seen as a rebellious act.
  • Openness to risk: Teens and young adults have brains that are not fully developed so they may not have the ability to fully understand the risk they are putting themselves at when they drink alcohol. In fact, they are often more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Signs of Teenage Alcohol Use

As a parent or guardian, you may start to notice certain warning signs if your teen is drinking alcohol. Those signs may be obvious or there may be more subtle signs that they are engaging in risky behavior. It is important to pay attention to your child and be involved in their life so that you can pick up on those signs.

Some potential signs of teenage alcohol use can include:10

  • Smelling of alcohol.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Struggling to remember or concentrate.
  • Lying about where they were or what they were doing.
  • Detachment.
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously cared about.
  • Struggling academically and/or behaviorally at school.
  • Changing friends.
  • Mood changes (anger and irritability).
  • Lethargy.

It may be hard to determine if your teen’s behavior is tied to drinking because of “normal” teenage behavior, but it is important to pay close attention to try to figure out what is the cause of their behavior. It is important to help your loved one before the issue becomes more serious. If you are worried that your teen or young adult has an issue with alcohol, take our alcohol assessment to find out more.

Dangers of Underage Drinking

Teen alcohol use is common, but it is also incredibly dangerous. Underage drinking is tied to a wide range of health and social risks, which include:4,10,11,12

  • Death from vehicle crashes: Underage people who drink are at a great risk for motor vehicle accidents. In 2019, around 59% of unintentional deaths for those aged 12-20 were from motor vehicle accidents.
  • Violence: Underage drinking, especially binge drinking, increases the chances of alcohol-related violence. Individuals may be the victim or instigator of physical or sexual assault.
  • Accidental injuries: Alcohol increases the chance of being injured or killed accidentally. In 2019, 2,225 youth ages 12-20 died from unintentional deaths caused by incidents such as alcohol poisoning, drowning, falls, and burns.
  • Legal problems: The legal penalty for consuming alcohol as a minor can be severe. Punishments depend on the state but can include fines, community service, and educational courses. These consequences can also go on a permanent record and negatively impact the person’s future.
  • Risky sexual activity: Drinking alcohol may lead to poor decision-making, including regarding unsafe sexual behavior. It may lead to unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections.
  • Brain impairment: Because the potential effects of alcohol on the brain and that brain development continues into a person’s 20s, young people who drink a lot may alter their brain function and structure. Alcohol use may cause learning or cognitive problems and could increase the likelihood an alcohol use disorder will develop in adulthood.
  • Alcohol poisoning: With the consumption of large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time, alcohol poisoning—when the body is poisoned by alcohol—may occur. This can lead to difficulty breathing, unconsciousness, seizures, and even death.
  • Academic problems: Teens and young adults who drink regularly may struggle in school. They may have problems focusing on their classes and studying. Loss of concentration could also lead to a decline in grades and performance.
  • Suicide: In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for people 12-20, and alcohol plays a major role in suicide attempts and completions.
  • Alcohol dependence: Early alcohol use is associated with the development of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life.

Young Adult and Teen Alcohol Use Prevention

If your teen struggles with alcohol use or alcohol addiction, or if you’re looking for ways to prevent underage drinking, there are things that you can do.

  • Discuss the dangers of teen alcohol use.
  • Help your child understand the science behind addiction.
  • Help your teen maintain healthy habits.
  • Have an open dialogue with your child.
  • Speak with your children without judgement.

When Should I Talk to My Teen About Underage Drinking?

Talk to your teen about underage drinking before it becomes an issue if possible. You can play a major role in shaping your teen’s attitude toward drinking. Help them avoid alcohol problems by getting to know their friends, connecting with other adults about sending strong messages about teens and young adults not drinking alcohol, and staying regularly connected with your child.

What Should I Do if I Catch My Teenager Drinking?

It is important to address the issue immediately. Parental involvement in a teen’s life helps reduce the chance of underage drinking. If you discover your teenager is drinking, talk to them about the dangers of drinking. Discuss strategies for resisting pressure to drink. If it is a problem, explore intervention options including individual and group counseling sessions and family therapy. Communication is a key factor in helping your teen stop drinking.

Treating Teen Alcohol Addiction

If your teen has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, or you believe they have an AUD, it may be time to help get them treatment for alcohol addiction. Involving them in the decision-making and speaking with them as an adult can go a long way in getting them on board if treatment is the best route to take.

If treatment is the best option for your teen, know that AUD is a treatable disease. You’ll need to look for teen rehab centers, as not every treatment facility offers rehab for young adults or teenagers. Decisions about which level of care is most appropriate for your teen (e.g., medical detox, inpatient care, etc.) will need to be discussed with a physician or addiction specialist.

You may want to investigate outpatient programming, depending on the severity of your teen’s AUD, as it may allow them to remain in school while still getting the care they need. Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, can help your teen find and maintain sobriety through a caring community.

Finding Teen and Young Adult Rehab

American Addiction Centers (AAC) can provide help and support to those who are struggling with teenage alcohol misuse, young adult alcohol misuse, and alcohol use disorder. Call to learn more about your treatment options.

For those who have insurance, using health insurance to pay for rehab should cover at least some of the cost of addiction treatment. Depending on your individual insurance plan, treatment at a specific facility may or may not be covered. It’s important that you know what is covered prior to attending a rehab. Use the free online insurance coverage checker tool below to find out if your health insurance provides coverage for addiction rehab  and other rehabilitation treatment plans for substance abuse recovery.

Coverage may vary depending on your needs and insurance plan. To find out if your policy covers spiritual or faith-based rehab, click here, or fill out the form below. Your information is kept 100% confidential. You can also click here to find a rehab near me.

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