What Alcohol Does to Teens

teens drinking alcoholic drinks
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We’ve written before about how drugs affect teens bodies and their brains, and we continue our series here with how alcohol affects teens. A teenager’s brain is constantly being redesigned and restructured under the influence of massive hormonal changes.[1] Add to this the influence of a drug like alcohol, and it can be a dangerous combination.

Alcohol is the most frequently abused substance by adolescents in the United States. 21% of kids admit to trying alcohol before the age of 13, and 79% have tried alcohol by the end of high school.[2] This window from 9th through 12th grade is an opportunity for community leaders, educators, and administrators to change lives with effective youth alcohol and drug abuse prevention projects. Statistics from surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) tell us that every day nearly 5000 kids in the U.S. under the age of 16 take their first drink.[3]

The Pride Survey for grades 6-12 2016-17 National Data Set shows that 7.7% of students in grades 9-12 surveyed reporting they use alcohol.[4] In the same 2016-17 survey, 10% of junior high schoolers reported using alcohol in the last year.[5] In 2014, more than 1.6 million kids – almost 4.4% – between the ages of 12 and 20 reported driving under the influence of alcohol in the past year.[6] Alcohol is connected to the leading causes of death (car accidents, homicides, and suicides) for this age range.[7]

Effects of Alcohol on Teens

Alcohol is a dissociative and a depressant and may initially make someone appear more emotional or their behaviors more exaggerated. The short-term effects of alcohol on the body are the feelings of being “drunk.” On average, the liver of a typical, healthy adult can metabolize about one serving of alcohol per hour, depending on the age, weight, and gender of the person.[8] Typically, consuming more than one beverage per hour leads to intoxication.[9] For someone in their teens, drinking any alcohol can quickly get out of hand and become dangerous. Some of the effects of alcohol on teens’ bodies include:

  • Loss of physical coordination including poor balance, slurred speech or blurred vision making even basic functions more hazardous.[10]
  • Slower brain activity
  • Skin flushing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Mood swings
  • Raised blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reduced core body temperature
  • Decreased impulse control
  • Loss of Inhibitions[11]
  • Poor decision making.[12]
  • Risky behaviors like drunk driving, fights, or unwanted sexual situations.[13]
  • Sleepiness, passing out or blacking out.[14]
  • Reflexes like breathing and gagging can be suppressed leading to choking or death.[15]

Alcohol and drugs also cause impaired development and potential long-term damage in teens. Alcohol can create “Swiss cheesing” to young brains so “some areas function normally, and others, like the holes in the cheese, under-function.”[16] This alteration to the structure occurs throughout the brain, but the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses – is markedly affected.[17]

Teens and Binge Drinking

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming four drinks in a row raising the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or greater. This BAC is the legal limit for driving under the influence in most states and typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men.[18] However, for many adolescents, it takes fewer drinks to constitute a binge: just three drinks in a row equates to binging for boys up to age 13 or for most girls under the age of 17. Among boys ages 14 to 15, binging equals four drinks in two hours.[19]

Adolescents often drink more than adults in one sitting, consuming as many as 5 or more drinks on a single occasion.[20] According to SAMHSA’s 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 5 million teens between the ages of 12 and 20 admitted to being binge drinkers, and 1.3 million reported being heavy drinkers.[21]

Alcohol and other mind-altering drugs don’t help the teen body or brain in any way. In fact, the adverse effects can last well beyond the teen years. According to SAMHSA, young adults who begin drinking before age 15 are nearly five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life.[22] Understanding where teens in your school and community are accessing alcohol or consuming it can help determine better support and programs for these students.

The benefit of choosing a survey company is that we ask difficult questions to discover what is happening in your community. For more than thirty years, Pride Surveys has been helping schools collect data on teen substance abuse perceptions and drug use trends in their communities through student surveys. We offer multiple drug-free community coalition survey options as well as student risk and protective factor surveys designed to help assess teen substance abuse and risk, including our student surveys for grades 6-12, and our new Pride Survey Plus that looks at additional items like e-cigarettes and opiate use in teens.

Pride Surveys developed its Risk and Protective Factor (RPF) student perception survey, a hybrid version of the Communities That Care (CTC) Youth Survey and the Pride Questionnaire for Grades 6 to 12 to measure the factors that show the strongest correlation to drug and alcohol use. It contains the core measures required by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for their Drug-Free Communities Grant that went into effect February 2013 and asks about incidences of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use plus perceptions of availability and disapproval of use from parents and friends.

Please browse the different types of student survey tools we offer and find out why Pride Surveys is the best choice to help you survey your school. Questions? Give us a call at 800-279-6361 or contact us here.




[1] “The Teenager’s Brain.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/health-matters/201006/the-teenagers-brain

[2] “Vital Signs: Binge Drinking Prevalence, Frequency, and Intensity Among Adults — United States, 2010.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6101a4.htm

[3] “Underage Drinking.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking-topic

[4] “Pride Surveys Questionnaire for Grades 6 thru 12 2016-17, Pride National Summary, October 19, 2017”

[5] ibid

[6] “Underage Drinking.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking-topic

[7] “Binge Drinking.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/136/3/e718

[8] “The Physical and Psychological Effects of Alcohol.” Retrieved 30 November at https://www.alcohol.org/effects/

[9] ibid

[10] “Drug Facts: Alcohol.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/alcohol

[11] “The Physical and Psychological Effects of Alcohol.” Retrieved 30 November at https://www.alcohol.org/effects/

[12] “Drug Facts: Alcohol.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/alcohol

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] “Brain Development, Teen Behavior and Preventing Drug Abuse.” Retrieved 30 November at https://drugfree.org/article/brain-development-teen-behavior/

[17] ibid

[18] “Drinking Levels Defined.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

[19] “Alcohol Can Rewire the Teenage Brain.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/alcohol-can-rewire-teenage-brain

[20] “Underage Drinking.” Retrieved 30 November 2018 at https://www.samhsa.gov/underage-drinking-topic

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

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