By eighth grade, 50 percent of children have started drinking, noted University of South Florida psychologist Mark Goldman, PhD, at a Nov. 15, congressional briefing. The consequences can be severe: Each year 5,000 young people under 21 die from alcohol-related injuries, including about 1,600 homicides and 300 suicides, Goldman reported. Other problems include possible adverse effects on the developing brain and a higher risk of physical and sexual assault, unintended sexual activity and poor academic performance.
In fact, children who begin drinking by age 13 have a 38 percent higher risk of developing alcohol dependence later in life, said another speaker Ting-Kai Li, MD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), who also spoke at the briefing. The risk is even higher for those who start drinking early and have a family history of alcoholism.
Yet despite these devastating ramifications, society sends mixed messages about underage drinking. "We may talk about it when alcohol is related to a teen driving death, but there is also a kind of a wink and a nod about the behavior," Goldman said.
Rather than waiting to address drinking behavior after problems occur, we need to look at the factors that influence underage drinking, said Sandra A. Brown, PhD, a psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego. Teen brains are different-more action and emotion-oriented since the planning and inhibition centers take longer to develop, she said, and traditional interventions are not going to work.
Instead, the goal should be prevention: changing societal acceptance of underage drinking, delaying the onset of drinking and intervening early when it happens. Successful prevention is more likely when parents and schools cooperate, communicate, monitor and provide alternate activities for kids, she noted.
The briefing, "Taking Alcohol out of Adolescence: A Developmental Perspective," was sponsored by the Friends of NIAAA, a coalition organized by APA that includes, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, the American Psychiatric Association and the Association for Psychological Science. It was held in conjunction with the U.S. House of Representatives' Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus.