It’s everywhere—at family birthdays and holiday parties, sporting events and at dinner tables across the country. Society’s message is clear: Alcohol is safe, affordable and socially acceptable.
Given its widespread use, it’s not surprising that alcohol is the most popular drug among middle school and high school kids. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. high school seniors and more than one-third of eighth graders have consumed alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“Alcohol is killing more kids than illicit and legal drugs put together,” says John Lieberman, director of operations at Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers in Southern California.
When kids drink, it puts them at an increased risk of injury, suicide, homicide, sexual assault, infectious diseases, unwanted pregnancies and car crashes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 80,000 deaths occur each year from excessive drinking, and millions of people visit emergency rooms or are hospitalized due to alcohol-related conditions.
Despite the sobering statistics, many parents view underage drinking as a rite of passage into adulthood and adopt a casual, permissive attitude about it. Today’s generation of parents is the largest population of substance-abusing parents in U.S. history, says David Rosenker, director of business development for Foundations Recovery Network in Philadelphia.
“They are significantly under-reactive to alcohol abuse because they used so much when they were a kid or in college, that they don’t see it as a major issue,” he says.
Instead of projecting their own experiences onto their kids, parents need to educate themselves and take an objective view of the real dangers of substance abuse.
While alcohol poses serious health risks by itself, the dangers increase dramatically when it’s combined with other drugs. School-age kids are experimenting with a wide array of drugs from pain medication and amphetamines, to marijuana and heroin, sometimes taking a number of them simultaneously and washing them down with alcohol.
“Nobody knows what the reaction is going to be and it varies from kid to kid,” says Rosenker. “In some kids, it’s toxic and they get sicker than a dog. In other kids, it’s fatal.”
With the skyrocketing use of prescription drugs across the country, kids now have easy access to these dangerous medications by simply opening up their parents’ medicine cabinets. Over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, such as Nyquil, are also popular among kids because they contain large amounts of alcohol and other potent drugs.
Drinking cough syrup, such as Robitussin or other cold medicines, to get intoxicated is often referred to as “Robotripping.”
Mixing alcohol with energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Rockstar or Monster Energy, enables kids to drink more alcohol in less time. Because caffeine hypes kids up, they don’t recognize the warning signs of drinking too much, making them three times more likely to binge drink than those who do not mix alcohol and energy drinks, or other stimulants.
Another shocking trend is the extent young people will go to not only get drunk, but to hide the fact that they’re doing it. Kids have been known to do everything from soak tampons in alcohol and then insert them vaginally and/or anally, to consuming vodka-infused gummy bears and candy.
Most teenagers don’t stop at one or two drinks—they drink to get drunk. According to Lieberman, 50 to 70 percent of high schoolers will have a binge drinking experience.
“The problem is, that experience could be lethal,” he says.
Binge drinking means consuming four to five drinks in a two-hour period and is typically repeated multiple times. The CDC estimates that about 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage kids occurs during binge drinking.
Alcohol has the potential to damage every vital organ in the body, especially the developing brain of adolescents. Research shows that binge drinking affects a person’s brain functioning long after the hangover wears off, with the potential to impact memory, learning, decision-making and motor skills.
While all teenagers are at risk of brain damage from binge drinking, girls appear to be more vulnerable to the long-term harmful effects than males of the same age, according to a recent study from the University of California, San Diego and Stanford University. Women are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, due in part to their slower metabolic rate, higher body-fat ratio and lower average weight, as well as hormonal differences. Men, on the other hand, tend to drink more excessively than women and are more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, especially drunk driving.
On college campuses across the country, binge drinking runs rampant. Eighteen to 20-year-olds represent the largest proportion of binge drinkers in the U.S., according to the CDC.
“Parents look the other way,” says Lieberman. “Kids go off to college and they’re basically told, ‘You can drink, just don’t get into trouble doing it.’ Even though it’s illegal.”
With binge drinking, comes the increased risk of alcohol poisoning, which occurs when blood alcohol levels reach dangerously high levels. Signs of alcohol poisoning include depressed breathing, loss of consciousness, coma and death. Fearful of getting in trouble with parents or the police, kids may decide to leave a drunk friend passed out on the bed to “just sleep it off,” sometimes with tragic consequences.
While heavy drinking can increase the risk of cancer, stroke, liver diseases and other serious illnesses, the more immediate danger is the risky behavior that results. Alcohol is well known for the calming effect it has on the central nervous system, reducing a
person’s inhibitions and clouding judgment. Kids under the influence are more likely to take risks and exhibit poor self-control.
“The biggest thing they normally wouldn’t do when they’re sober is have unprotected sex,” says Rosenker. This puts teens at a greater risk of contracting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases and having unwanted pregnancies.
“The other issue is kids under the influence, especially males, tend to be more aggressive and more violent—more acting out kinds of behaviors that they normally wouldn’t do if they were sober,” says Rosenker. Vandalism, theft, drunk driving and speeding are all more common among males who drink heavily, he adds.
When young women drink excessively, they are easy targets for men looking for quick sex, especially if they have passed out after a night of binge drinking. About one half of all sexual assault offenses in the U.S. involve alcohol, according to the CDC.
Although addiction can strike anyone, some kids are at higher risk even before they take their first sip. A family history of alcoholism and certain environmental factors such as divorce, physical or substance abuse at home, and social and academic problems, can significantly increase a child’s risk of addiction. While parents can’t change their genetic makeup and many of the environmental factors, they can help delay their child’s first exposure to harmful substances.
If kids use any addictive substance—alcohol, drugs or tobacco—before the age of 18, they increase their risk of addiction to 1 in 4, according to a recent study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. When they delay their first use to the age of 21 or older, their risk of addiction drops significantly to 1 in 25. Today, 46 percent of U.S. high school students are using addictive substances and 1 in 3 meet the medical guidelines for addiction.
As people move into the addiction cycle, they continue to drink despite the harmful consequences, and they develop increased tolerance, so they start to drink greater amounts of alcohol.
“If a kid is drinking to the point of passing out and drinking a half a case of beer three or four times a month, that’s pretty significant,” says Rosenker.
While many people think they need to drink every day to be considered an alcoholic, he says the biggest factors are how much alcohol they consume and what happens when they drink.
“Do they lose control, do they black out, do they do things under the influence that they normally wouldn’t do if they were sober? Have there been behavior changes over time? Those things are more telling than how much somebody uses.”
When kids are caught drinking, nine out of 10 times parents are completely in the dark about their children’s alcohol or drug abuse, according to Sgt. Tommy Jensen, with the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona. “It’s up to parents to pay attention when their kids are going and coming home from these events to make sure their kids haven’t been drinking.”
Lieberman stresses the importance of parents talking with their kids on a regular basis and having family meals together. He also tells parents to look for signs of substance abuse by checking the Internet history on their laptops and periodically reading text messages and e-mail.
“Most kids don’t think about their future. They think about here and now,” says Jensen. “I think it’s up to us, as parents, adults, teachers and police officers, to remind kids, that, hey, you do want to do things in your life and you do want to have a future. Start thinking about that now. And the easiest way to jeopardize that is to get involved with alcohol and drugs.”
Story | Angela Ambrose