How Adolescents and Young Adults Drink - and What Parents Can Do - and Why They Should
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Alcohol is ubiquitous in our society. It is the most widely used drug by adults in the U.S. and is so common and accepted that most people don't think of it as a drug. Likewise, alcohol is the number one drug of choice among American teens. Many parents used alcohol as teens, sometimes to excess, and came out "just fine". As adults, they use alcohol
in responsible and controlled ways. A majority of teens will follow the same pattern. Yet there are significant risks associated with underage drinking and the difference between today's patterns of teen drinking from those of a generation ago is stark. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ADULT AND UNDERAGE DRINKING
Parents should be aware that today's underage drinking occurs at more extreme levels than back in their day. It is not as much about chugging a few beers or gulping down sweet wine, as was the case when many of us parents were teens. Instead, youth drinking can involve taking multiple shots or swigs from “handles” of hard liquor such as vodka, bourbon, whiskey, gin and scotch. This is often their first experience with alcohol.
It's no surprise that new products are constantly coming onto the market and many are made to entice youth. The most popular is a flavored, low calorie low carb (100 calories and 2 grams of carbs/sugars) hard seltzer in a can called White Claw Hard Seltzer.
White Claw was introduced in 2016, dominates the hard seltzer industry and has become ubiquitous at teen parties. It comes in five fruit flavors and is owned by Mark Anthony Brands, which also owns Mike's Hard Lemonade.
A close second in popularity is Truly Hard Seltzer, which is essentially the same as White Claw. See this review of both products for an explanation as to what each is about, their histories and their intense competition.
In addition to teens, hard seltzers have become more popular than wine among millennials and it's shaken up the alcohol industry.
The good news used to be that the alcohol by volume content (ABV) is 5% for a standard 12-ounce can of White Claw and Truly. This is the same as a standard 12-ounce can of beer, which contains between 4-7% alcohol by volume, as well as a standard 5-ounce serving of wine, which is generally 11-13%.
Thus, drinking a can of White Claw or Truly can be less intoxicating than taking multiple chugs from a handle of vodka or shots of Fireball Whiskey, chased by a sip of a soft drink such as Sprite (with vodka) or Coke (with the fireball) - which is also common at big parties.
However, the bad news is that both companies have now supersized their products - from 12 to 16 ounces to 24 ounces. This amounts to "binge drinking in a can". Here's an example of Truly's current marketing, which encourages a 12-ounce can on Thursday, a16-ounce can on Friday, and a 24-ounce can on a Saturday.
Worse, White Claw and Truly recently introduced "boozier" versions of their products (within weeks of one another) -
White Claw Surge Hard Seltzer and Truly Extra Truly Hard Seltzer, each packing 8% ABV. These products come in 16-ounce versions.
As a result, drinking two of these supersized and/or boozier products in an hour can lead to comatose or fatal levels of blood alcohol content.
So when it comes to drinking alcohol, the old adage is true: it doesn’t matter what you drink, it’s really how much that counts. Youth often binge drink alcohol for the purpose of getting drunk - at times very drunk. When they consume alcohol, it often is not done so wisely, or limited to one or two social drinks. "Responsible", “moderate”, “careful” and “prudent” do not typically describe adolescent drinking. They just aren't wired that way. Instead they're wired for risk taking and excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to dangerous behavior, including sexual assault, physical altercations, accidents leading to injury, alcohol poisoning and drunk driving resulting in death. Mixing alcohol and other drugs can be especially lethal.
Binge Drinking. More than 90% of the alcohol consumed by teens is done by binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined for boys as consuming five or more drinks and for girls four or more drinks in about two hours. Binge drinking is responsible for over half of the 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year from alcohol. Teens who binge drink are three times more likely to binge drink as adults.
According to the most recent Healthy Kids Survey results, significant percentages of high school students report binge drinking in the past 30 days. Similarly, substantial numbers of high schoolers report being "very drunk or sick after drinking alcohol" in their lifetime. For Healthy Kids Survey results in your area, click here. Blackouts. Some teens drink to the point of vomiting or passing or “blacking” out. Blackouts are a temporary loss of memory resulting from binge drinking. Adolescents are more prone to blackouts than adults. Emergency room transports are not uncommon among teens and are viewed by some as a rite of passage. A revealing New York Times piece describes this phenomenon on college campuses. Mixing Alcohol with Other Drugs.Today’s teen drinking can be especially lethal when alcohol is mixed with prescription pills or other drugs. Reports of "punch parties" (involving a punch base with different types of alcohol and prescription meds thrown in) at some of our high schools are especially concerning.
Large Parties and Party Buses. Almost 75% of teen drinkers drink at parties hosted by other teens. Some of these parties occur with adults looking the other way while teens use substances; others occur when parents go away for the night or weekend and the teens then stage an epic bash. Or there are the rolling parties on wheels - party
buses. Party buses are thought by some to be safer than house parties. Instead, party buses can result in even more binge drinking over a short period of time.
None of this is to say that teen parties are inherently “bad” - but the alcohol and other drugs typically present when unsupervised parties occur can lead to extremely risky behavior.
Drinking Games. Drinking games such as Beer Pong (also called Beirut), Flip Cup, Screw the Dealer, Power Hour and Edward Fortyhands are popular games and lead to excessive drinking among teens.
Types of Alcohol Specifically Marketed to Teens. “Alcopops” are sweet, teen friendly drinks such as Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They are marketed to teens and have more alcohol than beer. In addition to White Claw, Truly, flavored ciders and alcoholic ginger beers also have gained in popularity. Teens often mix hard liquor with soda, juice or other beverages that disguise the smell and taste of the alcohol. Clear liquor such as vodka is often poured into water bottles to escape detection.
Caffeinated Alcohol Beverages and Mixing Alcohol with Energy Drinks. Caffeinated alcohol beverages may include malt liquor or distilled spirits and usually have higher alcohol content than beer. An example used to be Four Loko which was marketed to teens until it was banned in several states and by the the FDA. Four Loko was then reintroduced without caffeine and no longer marketed as an energy drink but is now flavored with lemonade, fruit punch and watermelon flavors.
More common these days is the use of energy drinks as chasers or mixers for hard liquor. An example is Red Bull. Energy drinks typically contain caffeine, other plant based stimulants, simple sugars and other additives. Called a “wide awake drunk”, the caffeine rush makes the drinker look and feel more balanced and coordinated so they don’t believe they are drunk. The stimulants create a “sobering effect” which makes the drinker feel as if they can drink more and stay out all night. Energy drinks essentially mask the depressive effects of alcohol and signs of inebriation.
Energy and alcohol drinkers are three times more likely to binge drink, four times as likely to think they can drive, and twice more likely to report riding with a driver who was under the influence or to be taken advantage of sexually. Mixing alcohol with energy drinks causes more dehydration, alcohol poisoning, ER visits and hospitalizations, is more addictive and can result in adolescent brain damage.
The Importance of Delay. Not every teen who drinks is going to become an alcoholic or get rushed to the ER. Yet the younger a person starts using alcohol, the more likely abuse or addiction will develop. Here are the statistics: 90% of alcohol and drug addictions start in the teen years. Youth who start drinking before age 15 years are SIX times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years. The percentage of teenage abuse of alcohol increases by nearly 50% between the ages of 14 and 18, and one out of 13 teens will get into trouble with alcohol abuse or become addicted later in life. See this graph which illustrates the linear relationship between age of onset of use and the risk of alcoholism.
MYTHS ON PARENTS ALLOWING TEENS TO DRINK Some parents believe that teen drinking is an inevitable "rite of passage" and there is nothing they can do about it. Others think that it is better to have their kids drinking
under their roof than to have them drinking elsewhere or driving and host parties and turn a blind eye to teen drinking in their homes. And others believe that the best way to teach their children to use alcohol responsibly as adults is to start teaching them when they are young. All these parents are well-intentioned and doing what they feel is best.
Yet there is no scientific research to support the idea that allowing children to drink at home will prevent them from drinking outside the home. While taking the keys away or hosting a sleepover after allowing drinking in the home may achieve these goals for that particular evening, the research shows these actions are counterproductive in the long term.
An NIH paper published in July 2014 examined 22 studies on the issue of parents providing alcohol for youth or providing a place to party. The paper concluded that “there is little research evidence to support the notion that it is even possible to ‘teach children to drink alcohol responsibly”.
The paper quoted three studies in 2004, 2010 and 2012 and found that “parents might believe they are keeping their children and their children’s friends safe by allowing them to drink in their home. This is not the case. Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol and related problems and drinking and driving.” Click here for an excellent article on the effects of different parenting styles.
The European Myth. In Europe, many countries have no minimum drinking age; in those that do, the minimum age ranges from 16-18 years old. Studies have shown that in virtually every European country except Turkey (which is Muslim), teens binge drink at higher rates than in the U.S. The rate of binge drinking among teens in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland is more than twice the rate of binge drinking among teens in the US. The rate in Denmark is even higher. LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF UNDERAGE ALCOHOL USE TO ADULTS AND MINORS
Adolescents and Teens
Minors can suffer legal consequences for underage possession, consumption, purchase of alcohol or public intoxication under “minor in possession”, “open container” and other laws. These consequences can be in the form of infractions or misdemeanors.
Misdemeanors potentially have to be disclosed in college applications.
Even if teens are nowhere near a car, they still can have their driver’s licenses suspended, restricted or delayed for up to one year for each offense related to the possession, consumption or purchase of alcohol.
DUI's. Minors who have a BAC (blood alcohol content) showing even a small amount of alcohol (.01% in California and .02% in Colorado) risk license suspension, fines and community service. In Colorado, a .05% level results in adult consequences for juveniles including jail time of between 5 days and one year, plus license suspension and fines. Holiday periods see an increased presence of law enforcement on highways and streets with checkpoints coordinated by local DUI Task Forces. Beyond holiday periods, highway patrol and other local police departments have zero tolerance for driving under the influence. The highway patrol also strictly enforces curfews for drivers with “provisional” driver’s licenses (during the first year) as well as restrictions on new drivers driving other teens. Parent Liability Adults (those 21 and older) face significant consequences for teen drinking and other drug use if they furnish or provide (including purchase) alcohol (or marijuana/other drugs) to minors. These consequences can include substantial fines, jail time and license suspension. Additionally, adults can be charged with "contributing to the negligence of a minor" which is a felony and involves significant jail time and fines. Finally, if an adult serves alcohol (or marijuana/other drugs) to a minor and the minor sustains any injuries or dies while under the influence, the adult can be held civilly liable. Additionally, Social Host Ordinances exist across the country and impose liability on
homeowners who host gatherings with alcohol, marijuana and other controlled substances consumed by minors in the form of fines. Depending on the jurisdiction, these fines may also be levied against teens. Teens and adults also may be required to perform community service and to attend restorative justice programs. Additionally, Marin County's social host ordinances now apply to party buses and some Marin jurisdictions now treat violations of Social Host Ordinances as criminal misdemeanors. For information on your area's laws on underage alcohol and drug use applicable to adults and minors, click here. PARENTING TIPS After spending extended amounts at home during coronavirus times, teens will be itching to go out! A little extra parental vigilance will go a long way – as well saying “no” to situations about which you don’t feel comfortable.
Be Wary of Large Parties, Parties with Older Teens and Sleepovers. Freshmen parents in particular should consider saying “not yet” to large parties and those involving older teens when parents are not present. For all parties and sleepovers, use the BTI Parent List to reach out to other parents. For older teens, continue to use the BTI Parent List for parties, even if you have lost control over where they go once they drive. An excellent read is “Where’s The Party?” by Jonathan Scott and Kelly Townsend, which has practical tips for what to do when your teen goes to a party and how to host one.
Set a Reasonable Curfew and Check-Ins. Establish clear rules for the evening in advance, including check-ins, especially if a party or a sleepover is part of the plan. Also know what your teen is doing during the day over winter break, as many parents still will be working outside of the home. Be sure an adult is present and supervising.
Don’t Place Absolute Trust in Designated Drivers. Healthy Kids Survey results show that too many so-called designated drivers are simply less drunk or high than their passengers. For example, for 2017-18, in the Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County, California, 38% of 11th graders admitted to either driving in a car when they had been using alcohol or drugs or being a passenger in a car with a driver who had been using alcohol or other drugs. Out of that group, 9% admitted to having done so 7 or more times! Needless to say, these are extremely concerning statistics. The bottom line: today's teens generally are more responsible about drinking and driving than we were back in our day - but they aren't perfect.
Say “Not Yet” or Keep Track of Uber rides. Using Uber has become increasingly popular with adults and teens alike. Some say it has been a lifesaver, preventing those under the influence from driving. While certainly safer than driving drunk or drugged, Uber rides enable extreme levels of substance use. Uber drives also enable younger teens to go wherever they want before they are able to drive. Accordingly, consider saying no to Uber rides for younger teens whenever you can be driving them – even if using Uber is more convenient. For older teens who are driving, if your teen is frequently using Uber, it's time to discuss their substance use.
Check for Hidden Stashes and Fake IDs. Periodically check for hidden alcohol as well as “fake id’s”, all of which can be found in bedrooms, cars and wallets. Fake Ids are easy to obtain online and usually come in pairs. If you find one and confiscate, chances are a second one is around.
“Teen Proof” Your Home. Reduce easy access to alcohol by locking up, otherwise securing or keeping track of any bar items.
Party buses. Although unlikely to be happening during coronavirus times, file it away that party buses can be even more conducive to binge drinking, other drug use and risky behavior than unsupervised parties. Although several deaths led to legislation in California regulating party buses effective in 2013, such as including chaperones at least 25 years old, some bus drivers ignore these requirements and unfortunate incidents continue to occur. Alcohol and other drugs can be smuggled into party buses in backpacks and purses as well as wrapped gifts, water bottles, plastic flasks attached to underwear or concealed under clothing.
Be Mindful about Your Own Use. This may be the most important tip of all. It is no surprise that in areas with high rates of teen alcohol use, there are also high rates of adult alcohol use, including binge drinking in our community. Alcohol consumption has considerably increased since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Kids mirror the behavior they see in the adults around them. Accordingly, it is important to model responsibility and moderation in your own behavior. Consider limiting your alcohol intake when around your teens and younger children. A glass or two with a meal isn't a parenting crime. Yet, when hosting or attending a child-related event, consider keeping it alcohol free and showing your kids that alcohol is not needed to celebrate and have fun. Never drive while under the influence. Remember that while your teens may pretend not to hear you – they are listening and are watching your actions!
For additional information on alcohol, see this recent BTI Blog entitled "Health and Other Risks of Teen Alcohol Use".