Often people make light about their first experiences with alcohol. However, if children drink underage there can be a very heavy price to pay both physically and emotionally. They need to have the risks spelled out to them, and the sooner the better.
Risks associated with underage drinking
Risks associated with drinking alcohol underage
Anyone who drinks a lot in a short space of time can suffer alcohol poisoning. The level of alcohol gets so high that the brain’s vital functions, which include breathing control, are blocked.
Nearly 4000 children were hospitalised with alcohol poisoning last year1. Each year some children die like that. Even if the breathing is not stopped, people who slip into an alcohol coma may die by choking on their own vomit.
Accidents and Injuries
Just as with adults, alcohol can reduce a child’s mental and physical abilities, affecting judgment and co-ordination – which can lead to trouble.
Research shows adolescents who tested positive for alcohol were more likely to get injured or have accidents than non-drinkers2. More worrying still, they’re more likely to be a passenger in a drink-driving incident3 .
When children drink, their decision-making skills are affected and they’re more likely to take big risks – like having unprotected sex. That can lead to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy.
Research shows that even getting drunk just once is associated with an increased risk of teenage pregnancy, with the UK’s rates amongst the highest in Western Europe4.
While excessive drinking by adolescents is a problem in its own right, it is at times linked to other harmful behaviours – like taking illicit drugs.
Compared to non-drinkers, underage drinkers are more likely to smoke tobacco, use cannabis or use other hard drugs5.
And this link has been found even if they get drunk on just one occasion.
Appearance and Side Effects
We all want to look and feel good – and adolescents are no exception. Sadly, alcohol can be a one-way ticket to feeling and looking downright grotty!
Research shows that underage drinkers are more likely to suffer from a range of health issues including major weight gain or weight loss, bad skin, disturbed sleep, headaches6…the list goes on.
During childhood and teenage years, the brain is still developing. Adding alcohol to that process is asking for trouble.
It can affect memory function, reactions, learning ability and attention span7 – all especially important during their school years.
Drinking could affect your child’s performance at school and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Alcohol doesn’t just affect young people physically.
Evidence points to alcohol misuse and mental disorders being closely related8.
In other words, young people who drink excessively may be more likely to also have disturbed mental health, even self-harm.
Education and Truancy
Every parent wants their child to make the best of themselves and performing well at school plays a big part in that.
The stats show underage drinking makes that less likely.
Evidence reveals that children who start to drink by age 13 are more likely to go on to have worse grades, to skip school and, in the worst case scenario, to be excluded from school9.
Agression and violence
Children and teenagers who drink may behave and react unpredictably – they have less self-control and their brains struggle to recognise ‘warning signs’10.
This can lead to aggression and fights.
Evidence shows their risk of being involved in violence and serious vandalism increases directly in line with alcohol consumption, which could lead to arrest and a criminal record.
Puberty is often a very tricky time for kids – both emotionally and physically.
Their natural tendency to experiment and take risks is increased. Adding alcohol to the mix is not a good idea; it can put them in vulnerable or dangerous situations.
For example, over a third of 16 and 17 year-olds have walked home alone at night whilst drunk11.
Think only alcoholics get liver damage? Not true.
Young people who drink regularly are equally at risk and start to damage their livers without realising.
Trouble is, the warning signs only show after a few years. In Britain, people have died with alcoholic liver disease in their twenties12
Dr Sarah Jarvis discusses these risks from a GP’s perspective.
Do you have a question about underage drinking or how to have the alcohol chat with your child? Drinkaware hosted two webinars to answer those questions:
With Consultant Paediatrician Dr Tim Ubhi.
Listen to it here:
With Parenting Expert Suzie Hayman of Family Lives website.
Do you still have unanswered questions about underage drinking? Tweet us @Drinkaware
(1) DOH 2014
(2) Sindelar et al, 2004. Adolescent Alcohol Use and Injury: A Summary and Critical Review of the Literature. Adolescent Alcohol Use and Injury: A Summary and Critical Review of the Literature; Sindelar et al, 2004
(2) Jiang et al, 2008. Alcohol Consumption and Injury Among Canadian Adolescents: Variations by Urban–Rural Geographic Status. National Rural Health Association Vol 24 No 2
(3) Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.
(4)European Union; Eurostat; Population database; Fertility rates by age. Online.
(5) Best et al (2001). Drinking and smoking as concurrent predictors of illicit drug use and positive drug attitudes in adolescents. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 60 (2000). 319–321 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376871600001137
(6) Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067. http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11355/1/DCSF-RR067.pdf
(7) Clark et al, 2008. Alcohol, Psychological Dysregulation, and Adolescent Brain Development. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research Vol. 32, No. 3 375-384; Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067. http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11355/1/DCSF-RR067.pdf
(8) Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067. http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11355/1/DCSF-RR067.pdf
(9) Ellickson et al (2003). Ten Year Prospective Study of Public Health Problems Associated with Early Drinking. Pediatrics 111;949. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/111/5/949?variant=long&sso=1&sso_redirect_count=1&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token
(10) Youth violence and alcohol. WHO, 2006 http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/fs_youth.pdf
(11) One Poll conducted for Drinkaware (2009). Sample size of 1,000 16-17 year olds in the UK.
(12) ONS (2013) Alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom, registered in 2012 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2012/sty-alcohol-releated-deaths.html