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Underage Drinking

Medically Reviewed By
Ashraf Ali, M.D.
This page features
6 Cited Research Articles

Sneaking sips from our parents’ liquor cabinets and attending our first parties are sometimes seen as rites of passage in our teenage years. But the excitement of these experimental alcohol experiences can lead to a host of tragic consequences. Drinking at an early age also impacts a person’s likelihood of developing lifelong habits of alcohol or drug use.

14 is the average age that people first try alcohol.

5,000Approximate number of people die alcohol-related deaths every year

189,000ER visits in 2010 involving alcohol use in people under 21

29Percent of 12th-graders who engage in binge drinking

14 is the average age that people first try alcohol.

11Percent of all alcohol in the U.S. is consumed by people aged 12 to 20

Underage Drinking Statistics

It can be difficult for teens to resist the allure of alcohol. More than 9 million underage Americans report drinking alcohol each month — 25 percent of all teens — despite laws that prohibit it.

Approximately 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related causes. group of people taking shots

Considering that alcohol is everywhere you look, it’s not hard to understand its appeal in a young person’s mind. Teens see parents, film and TV characters and other adults consume alcohol almost every day. In response, thousands of teens obtain fake IDs, granting them access to bars and liquor stores.

29 percent of 12th-graders engage in binge drinking.

Whether at a party, behind the school bleachers or in our own kitchens, a teen’s first taste of intoxication marks the beginning of a high-risk habit. Teens rarely stop after the first use, and rarely do teens settle for just a few sips. Young people who drink often binge drink — consuming an excessive amount in a short period — and are too excited and naïve to consider the dangers of doing so. In 2013 alone, 5.4 million Americans aged 12-20 reported binge drinking.

Underage drinking causes thousands of car accidents, arrests, hospital visits and, sadly, premature deaths. It gets countless teens in trouble with their school and with the law. Although several ad campaigns and nonprofit groups attempt to warn teens about drinking alcohol, the intrigue of getting drunk continues to influence millions of curious young minds.

189,000 ER visits in 2010 involved underage alcohol consumption.

It’s crucial that we continue to educate young people about the risks of underage drinking, and we keep an eye out for the signs that they may be abusing alcohol. If you know a teen who may be experimenting with alcohol, or happen to be one yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

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What Causes Teens to Drink

For decades, alcohol use has been broadcast and encouraged by media and advertisements. Whether in beer commercials during football games or full-size ads on billboards and in magazines, we are marketed alcohol from an early age. It’s also the most depicted drug on television shows.

For impressionable high-schoolers and middle-schoolers, their exposure to alcohol ads makes the idea of drinking seem fun and exciting. The potential dangers of alcohol get easily overlooked. Paired with a blossoming social life and the intrigue of breaking the rules, teens think drinking alcohol makes them look cool or mature.

Depressed girl

The personal stresses of teenage life also play a role in alcohol use. Trouble at home, failing grades, anxiety and stress from new responsibilities make teenage years a tumultuous time. While some teens turn to drinking simply for the fun of it, others view it as an escape from their problems. These cases can be especially troublesome and spell danger if not addressed early.


Courtney Sexton, former host of the substance abuse prevention program Real Talk, shares a staggering statistic regarding teen alcohol use and alcoholism.

The Risks of Starting Young

Drinking alcohol, especially in large amounts, presents the same risks to underage drinkers as it does to adults. Alcohol poisoning sends thousands of kids to the hospital each year. Operating a car after drinking creates a hazard for everyone on the road, sometimes resulting in tragedy. Additionally, getting caught drinking as a minor can land you in hot water with the law, your school and your family.

14 is the average age that people first try alcohol.

On top of all this, research shows a correlation between underage drinking and diminished brain development. Teens suffering from alcoholism show a diminished capacity for memory, attention, focusing and exercising spatial skills. One study also revealed that 47 percent of people who begin drinking before age 14 become alcohol dependent at some point in their lives, but only nine percent of those who wait until 21 develop a dependency.

Other risks of underage drinking include:

Signs That Your Teen May Be Drinking

With our busy lives and overlapping schedules, it’s easy to lose sight of your teen’s social life and to miss signs of problematic behavior. Young people often keep secrets and cover up their habits. But considering the risks involved with underage drinking and the ever-growing statistics of use among teens, it’s important as a parent to keep an eye out for telltale signs that alcohol may be affecting your child’s life.

These signs can include:

For parents, balancing concern for your children and respect for their independence can be a tricky task. Nobody wants to accept the idea that their teen may be abusing alcohol or risk damaging their relationship to find out if they are.

If you observe any combination of the signs, though, it may be time for you to approach them about getting help. If they don’t listen, you should consider staging an intervention. It might save their life.

Finding Help

Once they make the personal decision to get better, teens with a drinking problem can receive help from a number of outlets. Each case is unique and, depending on the severity of the problem, may require a combination of support services.

School Counselors

Depressed student talking to Counselor

It’s not easy for teens to admit they have a problem, let alone to an adult at their own school, but guidance counselors often form rewarding relationships with students that can positively influence their recovery. Regular meetings with a counselor can be an easy and free way for an underage person to discuss their drinking habits and hear honest and judgment-free advice as they work toward kicking the habit.

Support Groups

Millions of people with substance problems, spread all around the world, attend free meetings at community support groups. The largest and most well-known group, Alcoholics Anonymous, welcomes anyone dealing with alcohol abuse and walks them through the 12-Step recovery model. Attending meetings presents the opportunity to meet others struggling with addiction and form friendships that can last a lifetime. This camaraderie can be an invaluable resource for teens whose troublesome drinking has damaged their self-esteem and their relationships with friends or family.


When underage drinking evolves into a serious problem, professional treatment may be the best hope for recovery. Residential treatment and rehab facilities offer a safe place to stay as personalized treatment plans are developed and worked through by the well-trained staff. Many teen-focused treatment centers exist, in additional to the thousands of facilities designed for all ages.

A typical regimen at alcohol rehab involves a period of detox, followed by therapy and counseling proven to mold and improve behaviors related to drinking. Several facilities offer outpatient treatment as well.

However they choose to get it, help is available for teens fighting an alcohol problem. The risks of abusing alcohol as a teen are far too great to ignore.

Kim Borwick, M.A.
Kim Borwick, M.A., Editor,
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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