Teenagers like to experiment and try new things, including alcohol.
Teenagers drink alcohol to socialise, have fun, relax or change their state of mind. Some teenagers also like to push the boundaries and get drunk.
Alcohol may cause teenagers to feel more confident, more willing to try new things and more sociable. They may also take risks and greatly increase their risk of witnessing or becoming involved in a fight or accident.
Although the number of teenagers who drink alcohol is decreasing over time, teenagers who do drink are doing so at a much younger age and at increasingly risky levels. Teenagers are also consuming alcoholic drinks that are much stronger and drinking them over a shorter space of time. This is known as binge drinking.
‘Binge’ drinking causes long term psychological effects as well as physical damage.
Continuous heavy drinking over a long period of time can lead to serious damage to your brain, risk of cancer of the liver, mouth, throat or oesophagus, possible increased risk of heart problems and early onset or reoccurrence of emotional and mental health problems.
Drinking alcohol at harmful levels contributes to the three leading causes of death among teenagers – accidental injuries, homicide and suicide and can contribute significantly to risk-taking behaviours, unsafe sex, forced sex and alcohol poisoning.
The effect of alcohol on teenagers is different to adults.
Teenagers don’t need to drink the same amount as adults to experience the same effects. They have a lower tolerance to alcohol but can stay awake for longer and as a result drink for longer periods of time. This increases the likelihood of intoxication, which can have significant consequences including:
- A loss of inhibitions and decision making skills – leaving them vulnerable to accidents, violence and sexual coercion.
- An increase in risky behaviour – such as having unsafe sex, using drugs and driving while under the influence.
- A loss of coordination making regular activities dangerous – such as skateboarding or swimming.
- Blackouts – passing out or losing their memory.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Difficulty coping with school and/or work commitments.
- Financial problems.
- Harming friendships, disappointing parents or other important adults.
Initiation to alcohol in early adolescence has been shown to increase the likelihood of alcohol-related problems later in life.
Adolescence is a critical period in a young person’s development towards adulthood. What they learn during their teenage years and how they learn it can set the young person’s path for later life.
Scientists used to think that our brains had reached their full potential by the time we were teenagers.
We now know that from the ages of 12-25 the adolescent brain is still going through important stages of development to prepare for the challenges of adulthood. Through a complex process, the brain grows and forms all the functions it needs for learning, memory, planning, emotional stability and thinking.
Alcohol can disrupt brain development during this critical phase of growth and may lead to learning difficulties and memory problems. The longer teenagers delay drinking alcohol the best chance they give their brains to develop fully and reach their full potential to succeed and be happy in life.
If your child starts drinking at a young age, it may increase their risk of developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety later in life. The risk of experiencing social problems and alcohol dependence also increases. They may spend their time drinking rather than participating in sport or they may turn to alcohol whenever they feel a little down.
If your child has experienced mental health issues in the past, drinking alcohol can cause these problems to persist, intensify and/or re-occur.
The most common source of alcohol for teenagers is their parents, guardians or older siblings.
It may also be obtained from an older friend, from a friend’s parents or even stolen from their parent’s supplies in the home.
Australian guidelines for drinking alcohol
Alcohol can affect brain development and lead to alcohol-related problems in later life. To reduce health risks associated with drinking alcohol, the National Health and Medical Research Council has developed Australian guidelines, which recommend:
Alcohol and young people
- Initiation to alcohol be delayed for as long as possible.
- Children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.
- For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option
Reducing the risk of injury
- When you drink, the risk of short term harm increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. This means people are more likely to put themselves in risky situations such as drink driving, climbing dangerous structures, swimming in dangerous water, getting into fights or engaging in unwanted sexual activity.
- To reduce this risk, healthy adult men and women should drink no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion.
Reducing the risk of lifetime alcohol-related harms
- Regular drinking increases the risk of long term harms such as disease and injury. Continuous heavy drinking over a long period of time can lead to cancer of the liver, mouth, throat or oesophagus and increases the risk of heart problems such as strokes.
- To reduce this risk, healthy adult men and women should drink no more than 2 standard drinks on any day.
Pregnant or breastfeeding
- Drinking alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding can harm the developing foetus or baby.
- For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking any alcohol is the safest option.
Binge drinking can mean different things to different people and can be defined in a variety of ways All definitions below are correct:
- Drinking more than the recommended level for adults (more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion).
- Drinking continuously over a number of days or weeks.
- Occasional and irregular sessions of heavy drinking.
- Deliberately drinking to get drunk.
Australian standard drinks guide
Most people don’t actually know what a standard drink is or how it is measured.
It is difficult to tell how much alcohol you are drinking because different types of alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol.
It is important to remember that alcohol is not always served as a standard drink. Pre-mixed spirits and free poured drinks often contain more than one standard drink.
Use the calculator to count how many standard drinks you had when you last drank alcohol.
If you need help or you have a child who you think has an alcohol problem, speak with:
- Someone you trust and respect.
- Someone who can provide accurate advice, e.g. a family member, a counsellor or your local doctor.
Help for young people