Teenagers who drink alcohol have heightened risks for a range of seriously negative short- and long-term life outcomes. Some of these risks are especially prominent in teens who start drinking before they reach their 15th birthdays. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of Dutch researchers explored the impact that several factors have on the odds that a teenager will start drinking early in adolescence. These factors include a preoccupation with alcohol-related issues, increased sensitivity to the pleasurable effects of alcohol consumption and development of a higher-level mental skill known as executive function.
Teen Drinking Statistics
Only about 2 percent of all 12- and 13-year-olds in the U.S. consume alcohol in the average month, according to figures compiled in 2012 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In 14- and 15-year-olds, the rate of monthly alcohol intake rises to about 11 percent. Older teenagers drink far more often than younger teenagers. Approximately 25 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds consume alcohol in the typical month; in 18- and 19-year-olds (grouped together with 20-year-olds), the monthly drinking rate rises to nearly 46 percent.
The oldest teenagers also have the highest adolescent rates for binge drinking and heavy drinking; two abusive forms of alcohol intake associated with either potentially fatal short-term health outcomes or significantly elevated risks for alcohol use disorder (alcoholism/alcohol abuse). Sixteen- and 17-year-olds binge drink at only half the rate of older teens and drink heavily at only one-third the rate.
Teen Drinking Consequences
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an array of negative consequences for teen alcohol intake.
Prominent examples of these consequences include:
- lethal exposure to alcohol poisoning
- exposure to sexual assault and physical assault
- exposure to car crashes and other potentially fatal accidents
- declining school performance
- possible disruption of the normal process of adolescent brain development
- significant memory disruptions
- heightened chances of being intentionally killed or committing suicide
- increased risks for involvement in infection-promoting or pregnancy-producing unprotected sex
- increased risks for arrest or other forms of exposure to the criminal justice system
Some of these outcomes specifically result from binge drinking participation, while others apply more generally to alcohol intake. Compared to people who start drinking only after reaching the legally allowable age, teens 14 and younger who drink alcohol in any amount have a roughly 400 percent greater risk of developing alcohol use disorder at some point in their lifetimes.
Which Factors Affects A Teen’s Odds Of Drinking?
In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the Netherlands’ University of Amsterdam and University of Groningen used an assessment of 86 teenagers to estimate how a preoccupation with alcohol-related issues, increased sensitivity to alcohol’s pleasure-producing effects and executive function affect the odds that a teenager will start drinking at an unusually early age. (Executive function is a collection of abilities that allow people to do such things as control their behaviors, make rational decisions, use past experiences to inform current thinking and make plans. Adolescence is a time when these abilities first start to come together.)
After conducting a series of tests on the study participants, the researchers came to several conclusions. First, they found that a preoccupation with alcohol-related issues, heightened sensitivity to alcohol’s effects and age-appropriate executive function all play a role in determining the chances that a younger teenager will decide to drink. Alcohol preoccupation and heightened alcohol sensitivity increase the risks for drinking involvement, while the exercise of executive function decreases the risks.
The researchers also concluded that heightened alcohol sensitivity increases drinking odds whether or not a given teen has a preoccupation with alcohol-related issues. In addition, they concluded that such a preoccupation only increases the risks for drinking when a teen has relatively poorly developed executive function abilities.
The Strong Influence Of Alcohol Sensitivity And Low Executive Function On Likelihood Of Early Adolescent Drinking
The study’s authors believe their findings support the work of previous researchers who have concluded that high alcohol sensitivity and poorly developed executive function are primary risk factors for alcohol consumption in early adolescence. They also believe that, at least in some cases, teens simultaneously affected by heightened alcohol sensitivity and a preoccupation with alcohol-related issues may have unusually increased risks for heavy alcohol intake and alcohol use disorder.