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Adolescent and College Alcohol Use

by Landmark Recovery

April 2, 2019
A young woman walking to class on her college campus

Over drinking and excessive alcohol use is a major health concern that many across the nation deal with. Alcohol use disorder is one issue that can lead to serious health consequences such as liver cirrhosis, alcohol-related cancers, and heart conditions. While everyone is at risk for these problems, and short-term consequences, younger people are one of the more vulnerable groups when it comes to alcohol consumption.

College students specifically are more at risk than other groups. One study found that current college students were less likely to have been binge drinkers prior to college but more likely to binge drink once they entered college, most likely as a result of the environment. Living in this environment promoted drinking behaviors and increased binge drinking tendencies. Researchers from the study also found that college students with a greater genetic risk consumed more alcohol per drinking episode.

According to data from the National Institutes of Health, 19 percent of college students met the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. However, only five percent of these students sought treatment for alcohol problems, similarly, three percent of these students thought they should seek help but didn’t.


Adolescent Alcohol Use

A young woman near the ocean

While a lot of the youth drinking occurs in college, adolescent drinking among high schoolers is also prevalent. Alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. About 5000 young people under the age of 21 die each year due to underage drinking.

It should be noted that over the past two decades, binge drinking rates among adolescents from 8th to 12th grade has been falling. However, in recent years the decline has slowed and the numbers have remained fairly consistent.

In 2017, the binge drinking rates among 8th graders was 3.7 percent, a large decline from 13.3 percent in 1996. Similarly, the rate among 10th graders fell from 24.1 percent to 9.8 percent and 31.5 percent to 16.6 percent for 12th graders.

There are a number of factors that can lead a adolescent to drink. For example, because the brain isn’t finished developing, many scientists believe that, because of this, some adolescents look to engage in thrill-seeking behavior, such as drinking alcohol. Along with the developing brain other factors include, hereditary, personality characteristics, and the public perception of alcohol as well.


Health Risks Associated With Adolescent Drinking

Structural and functional changes in the brain occur from childhood to adulthood, during adolescence the changes are widespread. In humans, adolescent-onset alcohol abuse has been associated with a reduction in the size of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that deals with memory and cognitive functioning.

Along with memory and brain problems, there are also a number of issues related to the organs including the liver, kidneys, and heart that occur from excessive consumption of alcohol.

Furthermore, there is evidence that people who begin drinking earlier in life run a greater risk of developing serious alcohol problems, like alcoholism and alcohol use disorder, later in life.


Warning Signs of Underage Drinking

Many high school student experiment with alcohol, in fact, by age 18, about 60 percent of teens have had at least one drink. With that said, there are a some warning signs that parents should look for when it comes to underage drinking.


Some of these signs include:

  • Changes in mode, especially anger and irritability
  • Problems in school
  • Low energy level
  • Less interest in appearance
  • Slurred speech
  • Coordination problems and more


Family Strategies to Prevent Underage Drinking

A young man smiling with his daughter in a grass field

Family involvement is one of the most successful ways to prevent alcohol use among the adolescent and youth population. Family factors like parent-child relationships, parent communication, discipline methods, and supervision can all influence alcohol use among youth. According to the National Institutes of Health, the best strategies for preventing alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use includes structured, home-based parent-child activities.

A few tips that NIH gives for improving child-parent include:

  • Using positive reinforcement, listening, and problem-solving
  • Providing consistent discipline and rule making
  • Monitoring a child’s activities during adolescence

Overall, one of the best ways to talk about underage drinking is to do just that, talk about it. Many homes will avoid the conversation completely, leading to youth experimenting with it on their own. Don’t be afraid of discussion of alcohol, or other substances.


Open Communication

One of the best ways to help avoid serious alcohol use among youth and adolescents is to strengthen family bonds. There are a number of ways to strengthen the parent-child relationship. For one, you should encourage open communication. As mentioned just before, don’t be afraid to talk about things with your child, it will make it easier for your teen to talk honestly with you.



It is important that you show your children that you care, try to spend some one-on-one time with your child where you are giving them undivided attention. Something like going for a walk, bike ride, or even taking them out to dinner can go a long way.



Understanding that your child is growing up and that you can’t control every part of their lives is important to remember. While this doesn’t mean a hands-off approach, you should be able to respect his or her independence and privacy.


Other Ways to Prevent Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is a constant health problem in the United States, as mentioned before, it leads to a number of deaths each year and other adverse health consequences. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among adolescents, higher than the rates for tobacco use or any other illegal drugs. It should also be noted that there is a strong relationship between alcohol use among youth and many social, emotion, and behavioral problems, such as fighting, stealing, using illegal drugs, skipping school, and more.


There are many school-based programs in place to try and curb the onset and prevalence of adolescent alcohol use. Studies have found that for the programs to be successful, there are a number of components that should be added, including:

  • A consistent program over several years, including middle school
  • Interactive teaching techniques like discussions and small group activities
  • Active family and community involvement

There are a number of other suggested features to these programs.


Legislative Policy Changes

Adolescent alcohol use is in part determined by environmental influences such as the social availability of alcohol. In the past, lawmakers have implemented several policy changes that have targeted this to try and reduce the availability of alcohol to adolescents and youth, such as, raising the minimum legal drinking age.


Heavy Drinking in College

A young woman walking to class on her college campus

Excessive drinking is not something unique to the United States, many other countries in Europe and South America report problems with college drinking that are similar to North America.

The consequences of excessive college drinking are visible. According to some reports, there are as many as 1400 college student deaths per year linked to alcohol. A big reason for the excessive drinking among college students is, in part, due to the environment that has been molded on college campuses. One report says that the culture at college campuses “actively promotes drinking, or passively promotes it, through tolerance, or even tacit approval, of college drinking as a rite of passage.”

While the debate over college drinking is an constant and endless one, one thing is certain: there are hundreds of college students dying from alcohol-related injuries. Regardless of where someone stands on the issue, one thing that can be agreed upon is that these numbers need to decrease and we need to look more closely on how we can do that.


Along with the high number of alcohol-related deaths, there are a number of other consequences associated with alcohol for students between the ages 18 and 24, including:

  • 500,000 students are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol
  • More than 600,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking
  • More than 70,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
  • About 2.1 million students drove under the influence of alcohol

There is also evidence that excessive drinking during college increases the prospects for continuing problems with alcohol and participation in other “health-compromising” or illegal behaviors.


Tips for Parents With College-Aged Kids

Parents learning about how to avoid underage drinking in college

Prior to helping your child choose a college, most families will visit some colleges to get a feel for campus life and culture. During these visits, you can talk with college administrators about alcohol policies, social events, and socializing alternatives that will be available to your child. According to the National Institutes of Health, two of the biggest environmental influences that point to excessive alcohol consumption are athletics and Greek life.

While most college students will drink to some degree during their time at university, the key is to being sure that it doesn’t spiral into something serious or dangerous.

It is important to talk with college-aged kids, and younger children, about the dangers that are associated with alcohol use. For example, it needs to be clear that drinking and driving is not an option. Similarly, excessive alcohol use in the long term leads to a number of physical health consequences that can affect the kidneys, liver, heart, and even increase risk of many forms of cancer.

There are mountains of evidence that points to the dangers of alcohol use, especially when drinking in excess. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the long-term health risks of excessive alcohol use include high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, memory and learning problems, social problems, stroke, liver disease, and more.

With the newfound independence of college, you need to pay attention to your son or daughter’s experiences and activities in the first six weeks on campus. Many students will initiate in heavy drinking during the early days of college, which can lead to problems. In fact, according to the NIH, about one-third of first-year students fail to enroll in their second year. During this time, be sure to stay in contact with your loved one, learn about their roommate(s) and the people that they are surrounding themselves with. Make sure that they understand how alcohol use can lead to problems like violence, academic failure, and serious injury.


Getting Assistance

If you are under the belief that your child is dealing with a serious alcohol-related problem, it is probably best to get assistance as soon as possible. It may be hard to know if they are struggling with a problem since you aren’t seeing them as often, but there are a few warning signs that you can look for, such as lower grades, reluctance to talk with you, unwilling to talk about activities with friends, trouble with campus staff, mood changes, and more.

If you notice some of these problems with your child, it may be a good idea to pay them a visit to talk with them. It is important during this time in college to stay actively involved in the life of your son or daughter. Even though they are in college and living independently, they may still need your guidance and help.


In Conclusion

Alcohol is one of the most popularly used drugs in the country and is the most popular among adolescents and college-aged youth. While it is normal for many young people to drink, it needs to be clear that alcohol use can lead to dangerous results and that they should be aware of this. Teaching young people and talking to them about alcohol use and about the dangers of alcohol can go a long way in preventing problems like drunk driving.

Landmark Recovery is a premier drug and alcohol treatment facility in Indianapolis that can help those struggling with substance use disorder. Our facilities are staffed by master’s level clinicians who approach recovery with an evidence-based and holistic method to help our patient reach and maintain sobriety. Following discharge from one of our inpatient facilities, Landmark will help our patients get set up for success through our intensive outpatient programs. If you would like more information about our personalized treatment programs, please visit our website and reach out to our admission staff today.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.