Every PICU cares for teenagers who are injured in car accidents. Many times these adolescents have been drinking alcohol. We also see teens in whom alcohol has led to a variety of other injuries besides car accidents. So underage alcohol use is a PICU issue. What do we know about it?
You can find some statistical answers to the question here, courtesy of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Overall, alcohol is the most commonly abused drug by teenagers, dwarfing all others, including tobacco. In fact, underage drinkers consume eleven percent of all the alcohol consumed in the United States, an astonishing statistic. Nearly half of high school children report drinking some amount of alcohol during the previous month, and half of those teenagers did so during a session of binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks on a single occasion. By the time they graduate, three-quarters of high school students have tried alcohol. Among even younger children, forty percent of eighth-graders have tried alcohol, and sixteen percent of them report drinking within the previous month.
Those are the cold, abstract statistics. But teen drinking is not just about statistics–it is about individual children and what happens to them. Overall, a child who starts drinking as a young teen is four times more likely to develop alcohol-related problems as an adult than is a person who does not use alcohol until becoming an adult. Such children are also more likely to abuse other drugs, develop school problems, or engage in early and risky sexual activity. All these things correlate with teen drinking; they are not necessarily caused by it. Even so, such ominous associations tell us we should be greatly concerned.
One of the most dangerous problems connected with teen drinking is drunk driving. It is common among teens–ten percent report having done so. An even larger number–one third of all teenagers–report having ridden in a car during the previous month driven by a teen who had been drinking. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens, and many of those who die show evidence of recent drinking. Although alcohol impairs the reaction time and abilities of all drivers, inexperienced teen drivers are even more affected. All these dry statistics translate into the unique, individual tragedies of thousands of teens killed or injured.
What can a parent do about teen drinking? Does any intervention help? Talking to your children about alcohol before they find out about it on their own is not only commonsense advice, it actually works. For example, one survey showed that parental disapproval was a far more powerful deterrent than were legal restrictions to getting alcohol. Teenagers whose parents talk to them frankly about alcohol, including a firm expectation that underage drinking is not acceptable, are less likely to drink. Equally important, parents who themselves use alcohol need to set an example of responsible behavior, especially with regard to driving.
You can find more excellent discussions, answers, and comprehensive resources for parents here, part of the recent Surgeon General’s initiative to reduce underage drinking.