New statistics on underage drinking are always sobering. The latest: the government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health says 9.7 million Americans 20 and younger consume alcohol.
Pop singer Justin Bieber, now 18, is apparently among them. This week TMZ.com posted a photo of him with guys who appeared to be playing beer pong, the college drinking game. Previously, in the June issue of GQ, Bieber said, "I mean, I've had a beer, like, before."
Though fewer teens drink today than in past decades, experts are not celebrating. The reason: binge drinking. The new government survey says 6.1 million 12- to 20-year-olds consume at least five alcoholic beverages in a single occasion at least once a month (the definition of bingeing) and 1.7 million binge at least five times a month (the definition of heavy drinking).
Where are these teens getting their alcohol? The survey shows 57 percent of them reported they last used it in someone else's home and 28.2 percent reported they last imbibed in their own home. Among the kids who did not pay for the alcohol they last drank, 21.4 percent got it from a parent, guardian, or other adult family member.
To find out more about why underage drinking is a bad idea and about what parents can do to prevent their kids from doing it, FamilyGoesStrong talked with Ralph Hingson, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's division of epidemiology and prevention research, and Dr. Aaron White, health science administrator of the NIAAA division of epidemiology and prevention research. Excerpts:
Why is drinking a bad idea for teens?
Hingson: Younger people are more affected by each drink. According to the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, there are approximately a million eighth through 12th graders in the United States who drink five or more drinks five or more times a month. Those heavy-drinking students are more likely to drive after drinking. They're more likely to ride with drinking drivers, they're more likely to carry weapons, they're more likely to be injured in fights, and to engage in unplanned and unprotected sex. Nearly a quarter to a third report that they drink and smoke marijuana on school property. If they're doing those things at school, they're three times more likely to be getting mostly D's and F's on their report card. There may be some cognitive defects that result from heavy adolescent drinking. There's a lost opportunity that's hard for people to overcome.
Drunk driving is a particularly big problem, right?
Hingson: The drinking by young people doesn't just affect the drinkers but also the people around them. Half of the people who die in crashes that involve drinking drivers under the age of 21 are people other than the drinking drivers.
Why is binge drinking such a big problem?
Hingson: The issue with young people is that they drink less frequently than adults do, but when they drink, they're more likely to binge drink. In last year's data that SAMSHA [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] released, 12 percent of the binge drinkers had nine or more drinks on their last occasion. The hospitalization overdose rates are going up. Alcohol interacts with other drugs pharmacologically. Their judgment gets impaired, and they may end up taking higher doses of alcohol and drugs. Younger people can overdose at lower blood alcohol levels if they're got other drugs on board. The very young adolescents, the ones under age 15, they're smaller, so it takes fewer drinks.
How does alcohol affect the teen brain?
White: The strengths of adolescent brain development also tend to be its weaknesses. The adolescent brain is a learning machine. It's built to be shaped and molded in very unique ways by experience. The brain essentially assumes that anything one does that causes activation of what we call the reward system must be valuable for survival. If you're out in the world, if you impress a girl, if it feels good, you want to do it again. Drugs do that. All of them, alcohol included, produce reinforcement. So here you have a brain that's built to learn and particularly to learn about those things that produce reinforcement, and you add in a drug like alcohol that is reinforcing, and it seems like it doesn't take long for the brain to learn this is something it wants to repeat. We think that's part of the reason that the earlier the age kids first drink alcohol, beyond a couple of sips, the greater the likelihood they'll develop a serious problem with alcohol at some point in their lives. It's almost a time when we imprint on those things that produce pleasure…or reduce pain.
How can parents lessen the odds that their teens will drink?
White: Parents need to know they have a much bigger impact than they tend to realize. Teenagers by nature will tell us that they don't care what we say, they hate us, we're not cool. The reality is they're highly influenced by us and our opinions toward sex and drugs. The Monitoring the Future survey out of the University of Michigan, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, [found] teenagers who would say, "My parents would be upset with me if they knew that I drank," are much less likely to drink.
Should parents ever serve their kids alcohol in their own homes?
White: When teens are allowed to drink at home, they are more likely to go out and drink heavily.
Hingson: A lot of parents think it's a good idea to provide alcohol to their kids at home. It's not a good idea. It sends a message that alcohol is not as dangerous as it really can be.
What about the European example? Many people think that kids there drink younger but more responsibly. Is that true?
White: If you look at over 30 European countries, and you look at the binge-drinking rates — which is defined as five or more drinks a night at least once a month — among 15- and 16-year-olds, in every one of these countries, with the exception of Turkey which is largely Muslim, they all out-binge our kids. In the United States, about 22 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds binge drink once a month. Everybody else is higher except Turkey. France is about 30 percent. It turns out Denmark has the highest rate at about 60 percent. If you ask at what age do people in Europe have their first drink of alcohol, it turns out to be 12. Their first drunk is 14 ½. If letting people drink at a young age was protective, you wouldn't expect such a short distance between first drink and first drunk.
What message do you want to get out to parents?
White: Alcohol, it's not a question of good or bad. It's a question of whether it's appropriate for our young people. I do think there's a lot to gain in terms of health, injury, and all these other negatives of alcohol just by getting our kids to delay. We also want to help our kids learn how to have fun without altering themselves. If you have a dearth of other positive options, a kid's going to try to find other ways to meet those needs. There are kids who make it through adolescence without drinking heavily. They're usually involved in other stuff.
Kids who drink are more likely than their peers to develop alcohol problems later in life, right?
White: As a whole, the earlier one drinks, the worse the prognosis for alcoholism. There's something about the adolescent brain and the fact it's really built to learn that it seems to pick up drinking as a habit quite easily. Adolescence is a time we form these rich memories that get locked in, which includes good habits and bad habits.
Hingson: Forty percent of those who start at 14 or younger develop alcohol dependence compared to 10 or 15 percent who wait until they're 21 or older.
For more stories about preventing substance abuse in your family, read: