Teenagers and Alcohol

The end of the year is approaching, students across the world have experienced prom and many are facing graduation.  There is sufficient cause to celebrate!

Most of us acknowledge that many of our teenagers enhance their social experience with the use of alcohol.  The drinking age worldwide ranges from 14 – 21 coupled with a variety of restrictions regarding alcohol content and parental supervision (1).  Thus, an international setting brings highly diverse attitudes and cultural thinking regarding the use of alcohol among teenagers.

 Abnormalities of the hippocampus as a function of teen drinking (7)

Abnormalities of the hippocampus as a function of teen drinking (7)

Regardless of one’s cultural views on teenage consumption of alcohol, there are some facts regarding the effects of alcohol on the growing adolescent brain that all should be aware of.  As background, the consensus of over ten articles on teens and drinking is that “heavy” drinking or “binge” drinking amounts to 4+ drinks on one occasion.  Additionally, teens that engage in heavy drinking only 1 or 2 times a month exhibit permanent alterations to their brains as follows:

  1. The adolescent brain is developing through the early twenties, and isn’t considered fully developed until the age of 23 or 24 (2). Thus, it is more sensitive to the toxic effects of alcohol (4).
  2. Teens that drink 4+ drinks on one occasion 1-2 times a month exhibit damaged white matter (nerve tissue) and several other structural abnormalities in the brain as revealed by brain imaging (3,4,5).
  3. Teens that drink 4+ drinks on one occasion 1-2 times a month show permanent decreased memory function as compared to nondrinkers (4).
  4. Teens that drink 4+ drinks on one occasion 1-2 times a month perform worse on attention tasks, memory recall of both verbal and nonverbal material as compared to nondrinkers (4,5).
  5. Any drinking in youth is an increased risk factor for substance abuse later (2)
  6. Drinking 4+ drinks at one occasion on a regular basis as a teenager is an increased risk factor for substance abuse later (2)
  7. Teens that drink regularly over a period of 6+ months demonstrate consistently a lowered IQ by 1-2 points (6)

The science is out there.  Now we just need to convince the teenagers.  If we teach younger students the truth about drinking and we advocate for no alcohol, perhaps we can minimize the use of alcohol or even eliminate heavy drinking. 

Factors that influence teens to drink heavily:

  • Personal trauma (7)
  • Low parental monitoring (7)
  • Peers that drink heavily (7)
  • Lack of regulation/prevention programs by school or society (8)

The U.S. National Institute of Health advocates the following measures to reduce teen drinking (8):

  • Increase the price of alcohol
  • Increase minimum drinking age
  • Enact zero-tolerance laws
  • Step up enforcement of laws
  • Enact school-based prevention programs
  • Enact family-based prevention programs

However, what can we as educators, teachers, and parents do?  Dr. Nico van der Lely, a Dutch physician here in the Netherlands has done extensive research on the effect of alcohol on Dutch teenagers (3).  He has been the driving force in changing the legal drinking age in the Netherlands from 16 to 18, just enacted in January 2014.    He advocates the following (3):

  1. Adults associating with teenagers should set the example of moderate drinking
  2. Adults should not drink with teenagers
  3. Adults should not allow teenagers to drink at home.  Studies show that teens that drink at home drink even more when they are out than those teens who aren’t allowed to drink at home.
  4. Adults should continue to advocate against drinking after teenagers reach the age of 16

What more can we do?  All of the colleagues I have ever had are vigilant about not drinking at a club where students are present.   Personally, I don't think alcohol should be served at any school function whereas often, internationally, alcohol can be found at theater productions or celebratory events such as graduation.  In school we can certainly teach students at an earlier age, perhaps in health classes, what the effects of alcohol are on the brain.  What else can you do to help minimize alcohol usage by our teenagers?  

 

Works Cited:

(1) Legal drinking age. (2014, January 5). Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_drinking_age

(2)  The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction. (n.d.). NIMH RSS. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml

(3) Lely, N. v., & Visser, M. d. (2011). Onze kinderen en alcohol. Amsterdam: Nieuw Amsterdam.

(4) Trudeau, M. (n.d.). Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage. NPR. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122765890

(5) Tapert, S. F., Caldwell, L., & Burke, C. (n.d.). NIAAA Publications. Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain—Human Studies. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh284/205-212.htm

(6) Thatcher, D. L., & Clark, D. B. (n.d.). Adolescents at Risk for Substance Use Disorders. NIAAA Publications. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh312/168-176.htm

(7)  Medina, K. L., Schweinsburg, A. D., & Tapert, S. F. (n.d.). Effects of Alcohol and Combined Marijuana and Alcohol Use During Adolescence on Hippocampal Volume and Asymmetry. Effects of Alcohol and Combined Marijuana and Alcohol Use During Adolescence on Hippocampal Volume and Asymmetry. Retrieved May 3, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1821342/#!po=98.3871

(8) Underage Drinking. (n.d.). Underage Drinking-Why Do Adolescents Drink, What Are the Risks, and How Can Underage Drinking Be Prevented?. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm