Underage drinking occurs when someone consumes alcohol while being under the age at which it is legal to do so. In the United States, the legal drinking age is 21. Therefore, people who drink alcohol in America before the age of 21 are drinking underage. This, unfortunately, puts these individuals at risk for all of the negative effects of underage drinking.

Risk Factors for Underage Drinking

There are numerous reasons that factor into why some adolescents start exhibiting risky use of alcohol. These reasons range from social reasons to biological reasons, to psychological reasons. Risk factors for underage drinking and the development of alcohol use disorders (AUDs) include:

1. Genetics

Studies show that children whose parents have drinking problems are more likely to develop drinking problems than children whose parents don’t have drinking problems. Part of this fact is due to some children having a genetic predisposition for developing addictions in general. 

By genetic predisposition, we mean the personality traits and biological tendencies that children inherit from their parents. These traits and tendencies make these children more susceptible to developing addictions. 

Think about it this way, if you have always had a reactive personality from the time that you were a baby, you may say that you got that personality trait from your parents. As a result, you may end up being in the same social situations that your parents were once in. 

Now, having a genetic predisposition to an illness or personality trait does not doom you to go through the same sickness and struggles as your parents. Half of who we become as people is due to genetics, and the other half is due to socialization. 

For example, the daughter of a mother that once had breast cancer may be more susceptible to developing breast cancer. Still, that daughter may decide at a young age to exercise, eat a healthy diet, and perform regular breast exams. As a result, she may never develop breast cancer despite her genetic predisposition to do so. Similarly, adolescents who are predisposed to alcoholism may never develop it because they choose not to drink.  

2. Biological

A biological reason for developing an addiction to alcohol is if your brain has a positive response to certain stimuli. In fact, a study shows that brain waves react to certain stimuli in a way that can predict the risk of alcoholism. As a result, scientists of this study could accurately predict future risky alcohol use in preadolescent boys. 

3. Socialization

Social influence from family and friends also plays a role in whether a person drinks underage. For example, children of parents who drink and express a favorable interest in drinking are more likely to drink underage. Lack of parental supervision or support, in general, could also lead to adolescents misusing alcohol at an early age. On the other hand, children of parents that warn them about the dangers of drinking are less likely to drink underage. 

Peers also socially influence the drinking habits of adolescents. For example, adolescents with friends who drink underage are more likely to drink underage themselves. 

4. Psychological 

Many psychiatric disorders are linked to alcohol misuse in adolescents. For example, studies show that boys with ADHD, ages 6 to 17, are more likely to have severe AUDs within four years. 

Another example of the psychological risk factors of risky use of alcohol is exhibited by college freshmen. Studies show that college freshmen with anxiety disorders are twice as likely to develop AUDs than those without anxiety disorders. On top of this, college students with drinking problems are four times more likely to have a major depressive disorder. 

Children who experience childhood trauma are also much more likely to develop drinking problems. For example, children with drinking problems were six times more likely to have been physically abused. Children with drinking problems were also 18 times more likely to have been sexually assaulted. 

All children with drinking problems are likely to have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To be exact, adolescents in treatment for alcoholism are ten times more likely to have had PTSD. Also, adolescents in treatment for alcohol dependence are thirteen times more likely to have had PTSD. 

5. The Media

The way the media advertises alcohol also plays a role in how adolescents consume it. In fact, alcohol ads are known to significantly increase the positive perception of alcohol. As a result, more adolescents start drinking while underage.

Identifying the Signs and Effects of Underage Drinking

Risk factors for underage drinking can be used to explain why adolescents start drinking at a young age. Signs of underage drinking, on the other hand, tell you how you can tell if an adolescent is drinking underage. The signs of underage drinking are the following:

1. Behavioral and/or Academic Problems

Adolescents who are drinking alcohol underage can develop an alcohol problem that causes them to abnormally misbehave. An adolescent with an alcohol problem may also have mood swings. For example, adolescents that misuse alcohol can be irritable one minute and, the next minute, they can be sad.  

In addition to having behavioral problems, adolescents that misuse alcohol may exhibit sudden academic problems. For example, adolescents with an alcohol problem may start skipping school. They may also start failing classes that they were once good at. 

These signs occur because adolescents with drinking problems only care about when they are going to get their next drink. As a result, they no longer care as much for school or other people. 

2. Loss of Interest in Hobbies and Activities

Most adolescents involve themselves in a plethora of activities and hobbies. Thus, when adolescents are not exhibiting interest in the hobbies and activities that they once enjoyed, it may be a sign of alcohol misuse. This could be one of the effects of underage drinking.

3. Concentration and Memory Problems 

Memory loss is a common sign of alcohol misuse. Excessive alcohol consumption especially affects the memory and brains of adolescents because their brains are not fully developed yet. 

Another sign of alcohol misuse is having problems concentrating. 

4. Appearance of Drunkenness

If an adolescent smells like alcohol and looks not well put together, he or she may have an alcohol problem. Other things that make an adolescent appear drunk are slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, flushed face, and coordination problems.

5. Changing Social Circles

If an adolescent is suddenly hanging out with a new social circle, this could be a sign of an alcohol problem. It’s especially a sign of alcohol misuse if these new friends drink alcohol themselves. 

6. Secrecy

If adolescents start being secretive about where they go and who they hang out with, they are likely hiding something. The thing that they are hiding could be their misuse of alcohol.

Consequences of Underage Drinking

Since the brains of underage children are not fully developed, alcohol misuse can have even more adverse effects on them than on adults. Underage drinking is also dangerous because of the fact that adolescents are more impulsive and reckless in their decision making.

Therefore, they are more likely to binge drink a dangerous amount of alcohol when drinking. Ultimately, underage drinking can have negative effects on the physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being of a child.  

Negative effects of underage drinking include:

  • STDs
  • Cancer 
  • Liver disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Social issues
  • Health issues
  • Legal trouble
  • Suicide attempts
  • Problems in school
  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Abuse of other substances
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory infections

How Underage Drinking Can Lead to Alcoholism

Underage drinking can very much lead to alcoholism. In fact, studies show that people that start drinking alcohol prior to age fifteen will likely develop an alcohol use disorder as an adult. People who start drinking alcohol prior to age 15 are also 50% more likely to become alcohol dependent as adults. 

How to Prevent Underage Drinking

To prevent underage drinking, you must target adolescents that are 15 and younger. By targeting younger adolescents, you will better delay their onset of alcohol consumption. This, in turn, will lessen their chances of developing an addiction to alcohol. 

One way to target younger adolescents is to have them attend an alcohol prevention program. That way they can learn all about the dangers of alcohol. 

Another way to prevent younger adolescents from drinking is to encourage them to participate in hobbies and activities. Being a part of hobbies and activities will provide young adolescents with a social circle that is driven. 

Hobbies and activities will also provide young adolescents with things to be passionate about and goals to reach. If an adolescent becomes passionate enough about a craft or sport, he or she will not want to trade in his or her opportunity to be successful in it just to drink alcohol. 

Another way to prevent underage drinking is to sit down and have an open conversation with young adolescents. When having such a conversation, make sure that you are open and transparent with adolescents about the consequences of alcohol misuse. Also, make sure to answer any questions that the adolescents may have. 

Having such an open and honest conversation with adolescents will make them more likely to trust and confide in you in the future. It will also make them want to do what is right by you. 

How to Stop Active Underage Drinking

If you know of a child that is underage and already drinking, you can help him or her stop. One way is to have calm, open, and honest communication with the child. 

When communicating with the child, make sure to ask him or her why they are drinking and show some empathy. Also, make sure to explain why drinking alcohol at their age is dangerous.

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