The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that alcohol use by those under the age of twenty- one is a major health problem. Research continues to demonstrate that teenage alcohol use endangers brain, liver and endocrine function. Binge drinking can also be lethal to young bodies. In New York City alone emergency visits due to teens who had consumed dangerous levels of alcohol has risen from 7, 958 in 2007 to 15,620 in 2011 according to city records as reported by The Daily News.
Yet underage drinking has other more insidious consequences. Alcohol misuse by teens circumvents emotional development. The disinhibiting effects of alcohol enable kids to bypass the anxious struggles and subsequent lessons that come from navigating social relationships while sober.
Teens drink to attain a level of sociability that they haven’t had the time or space to learn for real. Rather than a process of discovery teens experience social life and sexuality as expectations far before they are ready for them.
As these same kids enter the adult world as twenty-something year old adults they find they lack the skills to nurture mature relationships. This creates a kind of social dependency on alcohol and other drugs which further delays the acquisition of the confidence building social skills so important to adult living.
In the rush to preserve the myths of the sixties, the fantasy of adolescent rebellion, or honesty many adults fail to set appropriate limits. Baby-boomer parents often explain that they can’t prevent behavior in which they themselves engaged.
When adults implicitly condone underage drinking they explicitly communicate a lack of faith in their kids’ abilities to learn better problem solving skills. It also teaches kids to solve problems through self-medication rather than through the hard work of character building. Further, the cultural acceptance of teen drinking creates entitled citizens who don’t believe that laws apply to them.
Interestingly, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future Study , the majority of high school teens actually don’t drink. As seen in this graph, 42% of seniors, 28% of sophomores and 11% of eighth graders drank in the past 30 days and the numbers decrease for those who have been drunk, binged or engaged in daily use. While the numbers indicate that many kids drink, they also suggest that more kids don’t engage in underage drinking.
Yet, the kids who do drink continue to set the social pace. The kids quietly trying to figure out how to do things with friends like go out to the movies, theater, or restaurants or who gently wish to explore their sexuality by holding hands or experiencing a first shy kiss get drowned out by the Monday morning tales of getting wasted and hooking up.
The antics of a few skew the development of the whole. The small ordinary steps that build more confidence and independence can seem abnormal in a high school context. A fifteen or sixteen year old who has yet to engage in sexual behavior or use drugs and alcohol can seem socially delayed even though such a child behaves in a developmentally appropriate manner. Media depictions of adolescent culture do little to ease such tension.
Abstinence doesn’t solve the problem of underage drinking. Rather, education and information that seeks to delay the age at which kids start drinking helps. Enabling kids to obtain gradual exposure to safe drinking can also do much to convey that alcohol enhances pleasant experiences rather than creating them. Supporting the idea that emotional struggle aids rather than detracts from character development can also challenge the medication centric culture.
When kids drink too soon they lose the chance to develop the deep skills that underlie mature relationships in work and love. Without those skills the experimental and rebelliousness antics easily become chains of dependence that weigh down anyone’s or any society’s aspirational vision.