Teen Alcohol Misuse: Why Underage Drinkers are More Susceptible to Addiction


Social media, popular TV shows, and movies routinely depict teens drinking alcohol — and sometimes lots of it — as normal behavior. They often treat underage drinking as if it were no big deal, despite the fact that it’s illegal and harmful to the still-developing teenage brain.

In reality, underage drinking is a big deal that can lead to major problems for teens now and later in life. First, it’s illegal in North Carolina for anyone under the age of 21 to consume, possess, purchase, or attempt to purchase alcohol. Second, and just as important, it’s also dangerous and can cause serious mental and physical issues that may affect teens for the rest of their lives. If you want to learn the truth about teen alcohol abuse (now referred to as “alcohol misuse”), keep reading.


How Common is Teen Alcohol Misuse?

Teens drink alcohol more often than they use tobacco, cannabis, or any other drug. According to the most recent Monitoring the Future survey, about 30% of 10th graders and 46% of 12th graders reported using alcohol in 2023. For comparison’s sake, these numbers are stable for 10th graders from the previous year and represent a decline for 12th graders (52% in 2022). These are positive trends, but the numbers can continue to improve.

On another positive note, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey suggests that alcohol use among teens in every demographic has decreased significantly over the last 10 years. While this news is encouraging, it continues to be the case that too many teens drink alcohol. Worse still, approximately 4,300 people under 21 die each year in alcohol-related incidents.


Why is Underage Drinking More Likely to Result in Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD)?

Underage drinking can lead to many negative consequences, but one of the most damaging is that it puts teens at risk for developing alcohol use disorders (AUD). Here’s why:

  • The teenage brain isn’t done maturing. No matter how smart a teenager is, the fact remains that human brains aren’t fully developed until about age 25. Alcohol can interfere with both the structure and function of the developing brain, leaving teens more vulnerable to AUD.
  • Teens tend to binge drink. Even though most teens don’t drink as frequently as adults do, they tend to drink more at one time. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports, “More than 90% of all alcohol drinks consumed by youth are consumed through binge drinking.” For teens, that means consuming three alcoholic beverages within two hours. Regular binge drinking can lead to addiction.
  • Teens have limited knowledge about alcohol. Unless their parents have educated them about the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol, teens don’t know what they’re dealing with when they begin experimenting with underage drinking. This lack of experience could lead them to develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
  • The younger teens start drinking, the more likely they are to become dependent on alcohol. As with most habits started early in life, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can be a hard habit to break. Studies show that people who begin drinking before they’re 15 are 3.5 times more likely to develop AUD than those who wait until they’re 21 to drink alcohol.


What Can I Do to Decrease the Likelihood of a Teen Misusing Alcohol?

If you’re worried about a teenager you know potentially misusing alcohol, there are a number of strategies you can use to help steer them away from drinking.

  1. Give them the facts. Whether you’re a parent, educator, or friend of a teen, you can help them learn the risks involved with underage drinking. Tell them that alcohol can impair judgment, leading to risky behaviors (such as impaired driving or use of other illegal substances). It can increase the occurrence of accidents and injuries and leave them vulnerable to unwanted sexual activity. It interferes with brain development, which may lead to difficulty with comprehension or create mental health issues (like depression or anxiety).
  2. Get parents involved. Research shows that parents play a crucial role in preventing teen alcohol abuse or misuse and that teens are less likely to drink alcohol if their parents are actively involved in their lives. That means having honest conversations about underage drinking, establishing clear rules and expectations, and monitoring your teen’s activities. It also involves setting a good example by using alcohol responsibly and providing healthy alternatives to alcohol.
  3. Try positive peer pressure. Encouraging teens to get involved with extracurricular activities like sports, school clubs, or church youth groups can keep them from being bored and provide them with fun and healthy alternatives to drinking. Just as negative peer pressure can cause some teens to drink, positive peer pressure may convince them to avoid alcohol altogether.
  4. Limit access to alcohol. Don’t make it easy for teens to drink alcohol. If you’re a parent, lock up your alcohol and communicate with other parents to make sure they’re doing the same. When your teen goes out with friends, know where they’re going and who’s going with them.
  5. Get them help if they need it. If you know that a teen you care about is misusing alcohol, help them get treatment. Early intervention is crucial. Most schools and healthcare providers offer screening services and assessment for individuals showing signs of alcohol misuse. School guidance counselors or the local health department can provide information on treatment options, such as counseling, support groups, or recovery centers.


Visit the Talk it Out NC Website to Learn More

Despite what some social media would have you believe, teen alcohol misuse is a real problem. Thanks to serious prevention efforts, the number of teens who drink is decreasing, but we can do better!

You can be part of the solution by talking honestly about alcohol with the teens you know. Get facts on our website about the many problems underage drinking causes and tips for bringing up the subject in a natural way. Start the Conversation today!