Underage Drinking: An Epidemic Among Teens

Published On: July 12, 2022

By 17 years old, around 64% of boys and 48% of girls drink alcohol every week in the UK [1].

The percentage of 15-year-olds claiming to have been drunk multiple times in their life in 2018 stood at 26% in England and 31% in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, there has been a rise in how many 11- to 16-year-olds said they had been drunk, reaching 31% in 2018 [2].

An NHS study of secondary school pupils found that, when asked if they had drunk alcohol in the last week, 2% of 11-year-olds, 3% of 12-year-olds, and 23% of 15-year-olds said yes [3].

Why do young people fall into underage alcoholism?

There are lots of things standing in the way of young people and alcohol consumption, the most important being the law. However, there are several reasons why they can be exposed to and become dependent on alcohol.

  • Peer pressure In school, young people feel intense pressure to conform and gain the respect of others. In order to do this, they can turn to alcohol, drinking at parties and consuming high volumes in order to look cool.
  • Upbringing If a young person’s parents consume a lot of alcohol and it is very present around the home, they can think it is a normal part of life. This increases their likelihood to drink a lot of it and become dependent.
  • GeneticsGenes can have an affect on how younger people react to alcohol consumption. If they have a family history of addiction, young people can be more vulnerable to developing a condition.
  • Bad mental healthDepression is unfortunately very common among young people. The pressure of social life and education can be heavy, and this increases the risk of them turning to alcohol in order to cope.

The consequences of underage drinking

Anyone who drinks large quantities of alcohol will be subject to the variety of physical and psychological impacts that this causes.

However, young people who drink a lot can be susceptible to a unique set of consequences, and these include:

  • Difficulties with education, resulting in poor performance and reduced future opportunities
  • Being drunk is more dangerous for young people as it makes them more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and kidnap
  • Increased risk of self-harm or suicide
  • Young people are still developing, so alcohol abuse can cause problems with health, organ formation, and social development
  • High risk to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy
  • Strained relationships with parents/guardians

One of the most serious consequences of adolescent alcohol misuse is that it sets individuals up for similar problems in adult life. As the access to alcohol increases with growing up, those who struggled as teenagers can start drinking much higher volumes as an adult.

How to spot underage alcoholism

 Teen 1

Because the legal age to drink alcohol is 18 in the UK, young people can already be secretive and deceptive about when they drink with their friends.

When dependency develops, it can become even harder to spot unhealthy consumption.

Learning the signs of alcohol abuse in young people can therefore be immensely helpful.

Losing interest in hobbies and friends

Behavioural changes are some of the most obvious signs of alcohol dependency.

As individuals drink more, they become more isolated from friends and family, and young people no longer hanging around with others might be an indicator.

This detachment from the world can also manifest in the abandonment of hobbies. If a young person no longer attends sports sessions, music lessons, or art classes, after spending years doing so, it could be a sign of alcoholism.

Struggling at school

Drinking a lot of alcohol seriously impacts an individual’s ability to concentrate and remember things.

For younger people, this can be most noticeable in their performance at school.

If an individual starts struggling at school or perhaps loses their motivation for education altogether, they might be struggling.

Clear signs of intoxication

Drinking alcohol causes individuals to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

One of the most obvious signs that an individual is dependent is if they consistently display signs of being intoxicated.

These include speaking with a slur, having poor coordination and balance, and having memory lapses.

How to help underage drinking

teen drink 3

Tackling alcohol dependency in young people can seem almost impossible, but there are options for parents, grandparents, and friends who want to help.

Approaching the individual

The simplest thing to do, while also being one of the hardest, is to talk to the young person about their alcohol misuse.

This conversation should be gentle and supportive, with the goal to try and understand why they drink so much and how much they are consuming.

If the individual refuses to accept that they have a problem, an intervention is also an option. These are events where family and friends unite to express how alcoholism has become a problem and offer support.

Offer them support

Either via a conversation or intervention, it is important to make clear that you are available to help a young person in beating their addiction.

Talking to them about their needs, their struggles, and how they can be supported is essential.

This can take the form of helping them handle the pressures of school, navigate difficult social interactions with others, or understand new and intense emotions.

Reach out to a GP

When alcoholism impacts your child, sibling, or friend, it can be overwhelming and scary. You can wonder how their body and mind are being affected, and not really know how you can help.

In this situation, talking to your GP can be really helpful. Learning more about alcohol’s impact on the body and brain, especially if that GP is already familiar with the young person’s medical history, can be useful for devising effective ways to help.

Look for treatment options

Throughout the UK, there is an abundance of support available for tackling alcoholism. In order to find out what facilities might be most suitable for a young person to recover from dependency, it can help to conduct research into local options for alcohol rehab.

Advice for parents

teen drink 3

If your child consumes alcohol and you are concerned about how much might be too much, the NHS offers a set of guidelines that can be useful [4]:

  • Try to prevent any form of alcohol consumption until your child is at least 15 years old. This can prevent more serious damage to their development
  • If your child is aged between 15 and 17, try to limit their drinking to once a week. Also attempt to ensure they are supervised while doing so.
  • For this age range, never allow them to consume more than the recommended weekly amount of alcohol for adults (14 units).
  • Establish boundaries with your child before they drink. Arrange how much they are going to drink, establish where they will be drinking, and clarify who they will be drinking with.


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/542889/Alcohol_consumption_and_harms_in_under_18s.pdf

[2] https://stateofchildhealth.rcpch.ac.uk/evidence/health-behaviours/alcohol-drug-use-young-people/#page-section-3

[3] https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2018

[4] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/childrens-health/should-my-child-drink-alcohol/

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