Teen alcohol use: A call to action

The month of October brings Red Ribbon Week, an event supported by the National Family Partnership as an anti-drug campaign. Since 1986, this campaign has brought awareness to the general public about the dangers of drug abuse, including alcohol, prescription drugs and marijuana.

Did you know the greatest influence on young people's decision to begin drinking alcohol is the world they live in? This includes their family, friends, schools, the larger community and society as a whole. Alcohol use by young people is often made possible by adults. After all, teens can't legally buy alcohol on their own.

Alcohol is the most used and abused drug among teenagers in America. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 31.5% of all high school students in America report they have engaged in "binge drinking," which is when someone consumes five or more drinks in one sitting.

On average 11,318 American youth ages 12-20 try alcohol for the first time every day. Youth who begin drinking alcohol by the 7th grade are more likely to have academic problems along with substance use and delinquent behavior in both middle and high school. By the time they reach adulthood, it will often lead to criminal activity and violent crimes.

Youth who drink make this choice because they want to take risks or engage in risky behaviors that are taking place among their peer groups. They might have less connection to their parents and more independence to use alcohol. Alcohol might be a stress-reliever, or they might simply have a lack of information about the dangers of alcohol.

The risks associated with underage drinking range from physical effects (such as hangovers) to death from alcohol poisoning. Major risks include exercising poor judgment to drive while impaired and engaging in risky behaviors.

Most importantly, a growing brain can be harmed by alcohol use. With the brain continuing to develop into the '20s, damage done by alcohol can cause major problems.

What can a community do to change this? If we create friendly, alcohol-free places where youth can gather, the pressure to use alcohol will diminish. Providing programs, including volunteer work, where young people can grow, explore their options, succeed and feel good about activities without alcohol are proven to prevent use.

Educating young people on the dangers of "doing drugs" and showing what healthy choices can do to impact their lives is essential. Providing resources to youth who are involved with underage drinking helps by letting them know that it's never too late to stop the abuse and start making smarter choices.

Encourage young people to become involved in athletics and after-school activities such as clubs. Create opportunities for older teens that have made the commitment to be drug-free to become mentors to younger students, showing by example how to make smart choices.

Parents, know your teen's peer group. Who are they spending time with? What are they doing?

By focusing on the positives of prevention rather than scare tactics, youth will make decisions that will benefit them long-term without experiencing the effects of alcohol abuse.

Diane Braun is project manager for Youth First, Inc.

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