Alcohol & Adolescents

I once spoke at a State Rotary conference in Busselton, West Australia and one of the speakers was then Commissioner of Police in WA, Karl O’Callaghan.
Commissioner O’Callaghan spoke about Australia’s drinking culture and the damage it is causing in communities around the nation. We have significantly high levels of dangerous drinking being considered the norm, more violence on our streets late at night (especially coward punches which can end in serious brain damage or death), increases in unwanted sexual behaviour and sexually predatory behaviour, car accidents, pedestrian deaths and more family violence in our homes.

Despite the fact that alcohol consumption levels in Australia and elsewhere are tending to remain unchanged or are declining, rates of alcohol-related harm are increasing.

50% of injuries from domestic violence and assaults in 2012 were linked to alcohol
70% of assaults in WA last year involved alcohol and drugs.
Reported in The West Australian Feb 2013

At the conference, Commissioner O’Callaghan spoke about the binge drinking culture of our young men and women – something he calls premeditated drunkenness. This involves a clear plan to drink to complete and excessive drunkenness.

It often starts with loading up with alcohol before young people go out in public and then they go for broke until dawn. One conference attendee made the observation that she has often had Rotary exchanges stay with her and without fail, no matter what country they come from they find Australia’s drinking culture bizarre.

They say they have never seen it in any other country. It also was not the culture of 30-40 years ago and yet it has become dangerously normalised. Alcohol may be legal for those over 18 but it clearly is being misused and abused to alarming levels.

I have written extensively about the sensitivity of the developing adolescent brain and alcohol use at even a minimum level can lead to many problems later.

One of the major problems is that early exposure to any addictive substance like nicotine, alcohol and other drugs in early- to mid-adolescence under 16 means the chances of serious addictions is much higher due to the massive growth of dendrites. These addictions can become lifelong addictions and are harder to overcome than addictions that occur in later adolescence or adulthood.

In the United States, the National Longitudinal Epidemiologic Survey of 27,616 young people (cited in Spoth, Lopez Reyes, Redmond, and Shin, 1999) shows that the lifetime alcohol dependence rates of those people who initiate alcohol use by age 14 are four times as high as those who start at age 20 years or older.

The next most pressing problem with excessive alcohol use in the sensitive adolescent stage of life is the massive increase of mental illness, including self-harm and eating disorders that can occur.

This link is being shown more and more in the research that is appearing in youth studies. Such a sad irony that many young people use alcohol as a form of self medication to feel better and to alter moods and that it is actually increasing the chances of even more problems, emotionally and mentally.

The benefits from drinking alcohol that make people feel more confident or more socially fluid only happen with the first two-three drinks. After that the true depressant effects tend to kick in especially the following day when the hangover kicks in.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, binge drinking can cause bowel, central nervous system, and psychological problems, and is also related to a high risk of injury, assault, road accidents, fights, other violence, sexual assault, and unprotected sex. Serious binge drinking may result in alcohol poisoning, and can lead to coma or death.

And then one more concern with binge drinking with adolescents:

The hippocampus shrinks with excessive drinking which limits short-term memory. It is thought that one binge drinking episode can impair a teens memory for up to 30 days.
Sheryl Feinstein, Parenting the Teenage Brain (2007).

So how can we shift to a more sensible and safer alcohol culture?

First we can continue to educate parents as well as our adolescents about the dangers of drinking. No-one wants their son to spend years in jail from an alcohol-induced bout of violence — or to have to turn off the life support to their child. Parents need to act as good role models in their own drinking habits, and also not provide alcohol to their underage children. Fortunately, recent research has shown that since 2010 there has been a significant reduction in incidence of parents’ supplying alcohol to adolescents.

“Research shows that parental provision of alcohol to underage teens does not protect against increased alcohol consumption later in life.  In fact, there has been evidence to show early introduction may lead to increased binging and alcohol-related problems later in life.” —

Secondly, we need to create some clear guidelines to what DANGEROUS drinking levels are. According to the health professionals more than 6 drinks at one time for males is risky drinking (for females, it’s more than 4).

GUIDELINES FOR ADOLESCENTS (& maybe for our under 30s who are still immature/under developed prefrontal cortex)

  • 0 drinks –  totally OK and you can still have a good time without alcohol at all.
  • 0-2 – Safe consumption, best emotional and mood benefits .
  • Up to 4 – OK social drinking level over few hours include food, still not OK to drive a car.
  • 4-10 – risky drinking.
  • 10-15 – dangerous levels of consumption, increases chances of poor behaviour and making bad choices included violence and unwanted sex.
  • 15 plus – bloody dangerous, avoid being in public places. Have sober allies to keep an eye on you to get you home safe. You can fall into an alcoholic coma and die, be killed as a pedestrian, driver or passenger in a car.

The male adolescent culture does have a lot to do with this issue in Australia but it can be changed. How come young men in other cultures do not use alcohol so mindlessly and recklessly – they are still men! Many of our girls are now drinking at much higher levels with little restraint and many hospitality workers say they are more bothered by girls behaving badly than men.

Mature adults can make their own decisions about what they put into their bodies. Developing and maturing young people have impaired decision-making ability – and we need to step forward as family, friends and community to speak up and say NO MORE.

Many young adolescents continue making adolescent risky choices well into their 30s and 40s. This is another concern. How do we acknowledge, ‘Welcome to adulthood! Grow up and get responsible and consider how these risky choices are affecting others and your own health and wellbeing.’ Adolescents need help and guidance to get to adulthood and I think this is where we are letting our young down.

Remember that while on the bumpy ride to adulthood the chances of dying increase 200-300% due to the nature of the risky journey. It increases to 400% in rural communities because of deaths in cars – often with alcohol being a factor. Haven’t we lost enough young people?

My wish is that we can help save precious lives by being better leaders for our girls and boys on their journey to womanhood and manhood. There are so many ways to feel better without alcohol and other mind-altering drugs.