Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


No Doubt

One choice for youth

Robert Mathews on Unsplash
Source: Robert Mathews on Unsplash

For more than twenty years, I have been debating—and deflecting—in the proverbial public square—the proposition advanced by the Amethyst Initiative and more than a few parents that lowering the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) will solve our nation’s problem (and fatigue) with youth and alcohol.

Perhaps a recently released study will help settle the matter.

In a January 2017 USA Today article, Karen Weintraub reports, “Teens whose early exposure to alcohol comes from home aren’t protected against the dangers of alcohol, and may even be more likely to drink and suffer alcohol-related harms, according to the study in Lancet Public Health, which followed 1,900 Australian adolescents for six years” (Weintraub, 2017).

The piece quotes the lead researcher, Richard Mattick, as saying that providing alcohol to young people sends a message that drinking underage is acceptable. “I don’t think it’s complex. I think it’s that simple,” Mattick said.

That simplicity is reflected in my own research, which reveals that more than half (57 percent) of high school students who say their parents let them drink at home—even just once in awhile (such as a special occasion)—report drinking with friends as compared to 14 percent whose parents don’t let them use alcohol at all (Wallace, 2008).

Indeed, the USA Today story says of the Lancet work, “The new study looked both at parents who gave their children occasional sips of alcohol, versus those who provided full glasses of beer or wine—and found little difference.” Mattick, a professor of Drug and Alcohol Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, added, “Giving whole glasses is probably worse than giving sips, but giving sips does not protect and still causes harm ...” (Weintraub, 2017).

How big of a problem are we facing?

According to the 2017 Monitoring the Future report, “Alcohol has been widely used by young people in the U.S. for a very long time. In 2017, the proportions of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who reported drinking an alcoholic beverage in the 30-day period prior to the survey were 8 percent, 20 percent, and 33 percent, respectively” (Johnston et al, 2018).

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the following (CDC, 2016).

  • Although drinking by persons under the age of 21 is illegal, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.
  • On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers.

In a 2013 Psychology Today column, “The Fierce Urgency of Now—A Nation’s Need to Protect Its Youth,” I shared data showing that “between 2010 and this year, those stating that they are allowed to drink without their parents present or to attend alcohol-included parties rose from 21 to 29 percent and from 36 to 47 percent, respectively.

“Finally, those teens reporting that they are permitted to host parties with alcohol increased slightly over prior years to 15 percent” (Wallace, 2013).

And despite the proliferation of social host laws across the country, some parents have difficulty toeing the line. Dr. Nat Coffman, a 27-year independent school leader, told me, "I think the facts speak for themselves and the research is clear. The challenge is that the life experiences of many people do not appear to match the research and it is difficult for many people to say 'no' to their children or their adult peers. I cannot tell you how many times parents have told me: 'I thought it was a bad idea, but I let them anyway,' or 'I didn't want to be the only parent saying no,' or 'I drank in high school and turned out OK.' Perhaps there needs to be social norming among parents?"

So, in short, we have a big problem!

SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, points to the pitfalls of underage alcohol use, reporting, “Alcohol is the most widely misused substance among America’s youth. Consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21, also known as underage drinking, remains a considerable public health challenge. Adolescent alcohol use is not an acceptable rite of passage, but a serious threat to adolescent development and health” (SAMHSA, 2017).

The CDC adds that youth who use alcohol are more likely than those who do not to be negatively affected, possibly experiencing the following (CDC, 2016).

  • School problems, such as higher absence and poor or failing grades.
  • Social problems, such as fighting and lack of participation in youth activities.
  • Legal problems, such as arrest for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk.
  • Physical problems, such as hangovers or illnesses.
  • Unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity.
  • Disruption of normal growth and sexual development.
  • Physical and sexual assault.
  • Higher risk for suicide and homicide.
  • Alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, and drowning.
  • Memory problems.
  • Abuse of other drugs.
  • Changes in brain development that may have life-long effects.
  • Death from alcohol poisoning.

It also highlights the fact that young people “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” (CDC, 2016).

With the average onset of alcohol use in the 12 to 13-year-old range, the problem just got larger.

So what can we do?

American adults can stop equivocating about youth and alcohol, acknowledging that the common perception of “all kids drink” is a gross distortion of the facts. American adults can speak with one, loud, unconditional voice that underage drinking is dangerous and deleterious to healthy human development and decision-making. And American adults can adopt the “One Choice” approach developed by the Institute for Behavior and Health (IBH), a collaborator at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education, a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors.

IBH states, “One Choice is a consistent, clear social messaging concept designed to encourage young people under 21 not to use any alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drugs to protect their health, especially their brains.” It goes on to point out, “Addiction is rooted in adolescence: 90 percent of adults with substance use disorders begin using in the teenage years” (IBH, 2017).

One choice, indeed. No doubt about it.


Amethyst Initiative. (2018). Welcome to the Amethyst Initiative: rethink the drinking age. (13 Feb. 2018).

CDC. (2016). Underage drinking. Alcohol and Public Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (13 Feb. 2018).

IBH. (2018). Reduce illegal drug use and improve public health. Institute for Behavior and Health. (13 Feb. 2018).

IBH. (2017). For a healthy brain teens make “One Choice”. Institute for Behavior and Health. October 23, 2017.… (13 Feb. 2018).

Johnston, L. D., Miech, R. A., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E. & Patrick, M. E. (2018). Monitoring the future: national survey results on drug use 1975-2017: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. p. 37. (13 Feb. 2018).

SAMHSA. (2017). Underage drinking. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. September 20, 2017. (13 Feb. 2018).

Wallace, S. (2013). The fierce urgency of now. Psychology Today. February 7, 2013.… (13 Feb. 2018).

Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing. 2008.

Weintraub, K. (2018). Study: parents who give their teenagers alcohol are inviting trouble. USA Today. January 25, 2018.… (13 Feb. 2018).

More from Stephen Gray Wallace
More from Psychology Today