Alcohol or booze is widely used by young people. Binge drinking, drink driving and unsafe sex can all result from the misuse of alcohol.
Australians generally tolerate alcohol as a socially acceptable drug, yet it is responsible for most drug-related deaths in the teenage population. Alcohol use also has a variety of serious health risks. It’s difficult to prevent teenagers from experimenting with alcohol, but parents can encourage sensible drinking habits.
The safest level of drinking for teenagers is no drinking, especially for young people under 15 years of age. But if older teenagers do drink, parents can minimise the risks by providing adult supervision and encouraging consumption within the adult guideline for low-risk drinking (two standard drinks in any one day).
It is important to be aware of the laws about serving alcohol to minors in your state or territory, including in your own home, as these have changed in some states. Ring DrugInfo on 1300 858 584, contact your local legal aid service or visit the Lawstuff website to find out the situation in your area.
Parents believe alcohol is less dangerous than other drugs
Adolescence is typically a time of experimentation. This reflects Australia’s tolerant approach to alcohol use. Alcohol is one of the most commonly used drugs in Australia.
The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that 66.8 per cent of 12–17 year olds have never had a full serve of alcohol, which would indicate that 33.2 per cent have tried alcohol. It also found that 3.4 per cent of 12–17 year olds drink weekly (while for the 18–24 age group, the figure is 32.7 per cent).
There is some evidence to suggest that parents are so alarmed at the thought of their children using harder drugs that they see alcohol as a lesser and more acceptable evil.
Alcohol and its risks for teenagers
Irresponsible use of alcohol can lead to:
- binge drinking or drinking too much on a single occasion
- drink driving
- unsafe sex
- impaired brain development
- injury or death.
Binge drinking or heavy drinking
Binge drinking is the term commonly used to describe drinking heavily over a short period of time with the intention of becoming intoxicated. This can be very harmful to a person’s health and wellbeing. As well as increasing the risk of health problems, binge drinking can lead young people to take risks and put themselves in dangerous situations.
Common effects of binge episodes include:
- nausea and vomiting
Binge drinking means different things to different people. Some Australian recommendations talk about drinking too much on a single occasion of drinking, rather than binge drinking, but the harm that can be done to the drinker and their community are essentially the same.
Drinking too much on a single occasion means drinking significantly more than the recommended level of four standard drinks on any one occasion. In the 2011 report on tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter and illicit substance use among Australian secondary school students, around 6.4 per cent of Australian secondary school students drank more than four drinks on one day in the previous seven days.
Schoolies week and alcohol
Celebrating finishing high school (schoolies week) is often linked to episodes of very high levels of single-session drinking or deliberately drinking to intoxication. Over 70 per cent of male school leavers and 60 per cent of females report getting drunk on most or all days or nights of their schoolies week.
Car accidents and drink driving are a leading cause of death for teenagers. In the 12 months prior to April 2010 in Victoria, 41 drivers and riders were killed who tested at or over 0.05 (the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC)). Of those, six were aged under 21, 16 were aged 21–29, 11 were aged 30–39 and eight were aged 40 years and over.
Alcohol and sex
Alcohol impairs judgement. Teenagers are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices when they have been drinking. Other associated risks include:
- date rape
- sexual intercourse without a condom
- exposure to sexually transmissible infections (STIs)
- possible pregnancy.
Alcohol and impaired brain development
Drinking alcohol can affect how the brain develops in people under the age of 25. People under 15 years of age are particularly at risk. Teenage brains are still developing, and the areas of the brain that undergo the most dramatic changes during the teenage years are the frontal lobe and hippocampus. These areas are associated with motivation, impulse control and addiction.
Alcohol is a neurotoxin, which means it can poison the brain. One of the effects of excessive alcohol use is that it interferes with vitamin B absorption, which prevents the brain from working properly. Long-term drinking above the recommended levels may lead to a range of disorders, collectively known as alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI). Symptoms can include learning and memory problems, and difficulties with balance.
Alcohol and serious injury or death
Young people are more likely to take risks when drinking. Alcohol is a significant factor in a range of risky situations, including:
- fighting or brawling
- drug overdose
- self-harm or suicide.
Alcohol and other drugs
Misuse of alcohol can be linked to the misuse of other drugs. Taking alcohol with other drugs that also suppress the central nervous system, such as heroin and benzodiazepines, can be particularly risky. It can cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to decrease to dangerous levels and increase the risk of overdose.
The combination of alcohol and drugs (including cannabis) can also lead to increased risk taking, making it difficult to drive or carry out other activities, with the potential to harm others as well as the drinker.
Parental role models and alcohol
Studies have shown that the most influential role models for children are their parents. Children learn by imitation, so it is important that parents demonstrate sensible drinking behaviours.
- Drink moderately or not at all.
- Don’t drink every time you socialise.
- Never drink and drive.
Teaching responsible drinking
Parents can’t prevent their teenagers from experimenting with alcohol, but they can encourage sensible drinking habits.
- Offer good role modelling.
- Start teaching your child about alcohol from an early age.
- Explain the downside of heavy drinking, such as vomiting, head spins, passing out and hangovers.
- Educate your teenager on the links between drinking and dangerous behaviour, such as unsafe sex.
- Teach your teenager sensible tactics such as how to say no, standard drink recommendations, pacing themselves, alternating alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic beverages and not drinking on an empty stomach.
- Talk about the dangers of drink-driving and plan alternatives together, such as public transport, designated drivers or calling home.
- Encourage your teenager to talk with their friends about the dangers of alcohol, so they can come up with ways to look out for each other.
Preventing alcohol abuse in teenagers
According to Australian research, there are many important factors that help reduce the likelihood of a young person abusing alcohol.
As well as good parental role modelling, these factors include:
• a loving, supportive home life
• educational programs in schools on the use and misuse of alcohol
• developing personal, social, academic and employment skills
• a healthy lifestyle, such as regular exercise and a love of sports
• restrictions on alcohol advertising
• avoiding the use of scare tactics, which can backfire and increase alcohol use among teenagers.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- DrugInfo Resource Centre Tel. 1300 85 85 84
- DirectLine – 24-hour confidential drug and alcohol telephone counselling, information and referral Tel. 1800 888 236
- Family Drug Help – information and support for people concerned about a relative or friend using drugs Tel. 1300 660 068
- Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS) –– for people aged between 12 and 21 who are experiencing problems related to alcohol and other drugs Tel: 1800 458 685
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Alcohol and Drug Foundation
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.