An alarming number of young people are consuming alcohol nowadays, often binging on the weekends and combining drinking with drug experimentation. These risky behaviors are causing health problems with consequences that will have to be dealt with throughout their adult lives. I should know. I was once that teenage drinker turned alcoholic. As such, these statistics hit home for me.
More than 4 million American children aged 12 to 17 consume alcohol each month, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use.
Research shows psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression frequently co-occur with alcohol abusers; childhood and adolescent emotional trauma are factors related to future alcohol abuse and addiction.
A 23-year study known as "Lives Across Time: A Prospective Study of Adolescent and Adult Development," originally began as a possible three or four year project. Started in 1988 with 1200 participating 15 years-olds, the project has changed into a lifetime study of the effects of alcohol for Michael Windle, professor at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions.
"A lot of adolescents experiment with alcohol and drugs," says Windle. "Some of them will use these substances long term, and others will stop. The larger question is how do we change those patterns over time, knowing that not everyone changes in the same way or at the same time?"
Some key points emerged over time that have helped change perceptions of alcoholism. Alcoholics are no longer portrayed as drunk older men sleeping it off in some doorway. Use, abuse, and addiction are the highest among men and women between 23 and 27 years of age. This makes a big difference in treatments and prevention plans.
Teens tend to start drinking or experimenting for a variety of reason. After attaining legal drinking age, many young people unwisely enjoy being able to drink when and where they want without the stress of parental control. By the time individuals approach their thirties, they are entering the career and family stages of life when alcohol and partying are no longer such an important part of their focus. This is the age where many people get their drinking under control or they may become self-destructive alcoholics, if they are not already out of control.
To identify those at risk, Windle and a group of experts created a guide that clinicians and educators can use to screen children for alcohol use. Developed by the NIAAA Task Force for Underage Drinking, the practitioner's guide—"Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth"—is available free at niaaa.nih.gov/youthguide. The task force is evaluating the guide, now in use throughout the United States, to measure its effectiveness. The guide is one way of increasing opportunities for the safe passage of children from adolescence to young adulthood and beyond.
Education and information is needed to teach young people about the lifetime of problems that alcohol abuse can lead to. Children are precious and full of potential for the future, and therefore need to be protected against developing preventable problems and a lifetime of regrets.
Constance Scharff is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research for Cliffside Malibu. She is also the coauthor of the Amazon.com bestselling book Ending Addiction for Good with Richard Taite.