Teens & Alcohol: Trends, Effects & Consequences

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson we'll go over some of the warning signs of teen alcohol use. We'll also look at the health and social consequences for the individual. Lastly, we'll explore treatment options for alcohol abuse.

What Does Alcohol Use Look Like?

Jesse says goodbye to his parents and heads out to a sleepover at his friends cabin. When the gang gets there, his friend brings out a case of beer and a bottle of cheap vodka. A few drinks in, Jesse starts to feel woozy, since he's never drank much before. His friends encourage him to keep drinking, explaining that it's normal to feel that way at first.

The game proceeds quickly and soon Jesse has no idea how many beers he's had, even though they only started drinking a few hours ago. He stumbles to the bathroom where he throws up. His friends assure him this is normal and leave him to sweat it out alone.

Drinking games are dangerous for both adults and teens
drinking games

When they return several hours later they find him collapsed next to the toilet, vomit dripping out his mouth with urine stained on his pants. At first, they can't wait to tease him about this mishap, maybe even show the pictures to his girlfriend. But, after shaking him, he doesn't move. His pulse is hard to find. The other boys realize they have to call 911. Their friend has suffered from acute alcohol poisoning, an overdose of alcohol, and is on his way to not breathing.

Although this isn't how every party in the woods ends, it unfortunately happens to more than it should. On average, over 4,000 people under 21 die from alcohol poisoning or alcohol related accidents each year. Here, we're going to review some trends in teen alcohol use in recent years and then talk about consequences of alcohol use and treatment programs.

Trends in Teen Alcohol Use

Teen alcohol use has decreased significantly since 2009. Binge drinking; or drinking five or more drinks within two hours for men, or four drinks in two hours for women, has also decreased among teens. The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that decline is due to strong prevention efforts in schools and communities. Many schools and parents are providing clear messages that alcohol is not okay for teens and that there are serious consequences. Teens may have also witnessed the dangers of alcohol use in their families. In addition, alcohol distributors have cracked down on underage alcohol purchases, decreasing the availability of alcohol to teens.


The consequences of alcohol use can be serious. Alcohol impairs judgement and decreases inhibitions. So, as you may know from experience, it's harder to say no to a second drink after having a first, and when alcohol is consumed in the form of shots, it's even harder to assess how much you have been drinking.

Shots are especially dangerous because people consume a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time

Teens are inexperienced when it comes to drinking and already have a hard time understanding their bodies. Combine that with the pressure from other teens to drink and serious consequences can result. Often, when teens have drank too much, their friends don't recognize the warning signs, or are afraid to get help because they will get in trouble. By the time they notice their friend not breathing, its too late.

When drinking, it's harder to assess risks, and short term memory is impaired. This makes teens more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as unsafe sexual activity and violence. Unsafe sex can lead to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, in addition to emotional harm that comes from unplanned sexual encounters for teens.

Since alcohol decreases coordination and spatial awareness, it's no surprise that accidents happen more often while people are drinking. In 2008 alone, over 190,000 people under the age of 21 went to the emergency room for a serious injury related to alcohol use, such as broken bones, burns or concussions from falls.

Excessive alcohol intake can end in the emergency room for teens
emergency room

Although physically teens might look like adults, their brains are still developing. Drinking can cause permanent damage to this process, impairing memory and cognitive function in ways it does not in fully developed adults.

Alcohol is a depressant, slowing down the brain and body. As the name sounds, alcohol can make us feel depressed, or sad. For some people predisposed to depression, alcohol can make their problems worse. For some, alcohol use ends in suicide, exacerbating already existing mental health conditions.

Excessive drinking can end in depression and even suicide

Treatment Options

Thankfully, there are treatment options for teens who struggle with alcohol abuse. Behavioral therapy, family interventions and medical strategies are the three main treatment options.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy involves one-on-one or group counseling with a licensed social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. During behavioral therapy, the counselor will talk to the teen about the feelings that drive alcohol abuse and help them find healthy ways to cope instead of alcohol. Strategies include improving communication, identifying triggers that lead to alcohol use, and developing healthy habits like exercise.

Counseling is a treatment option for teens

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