Underage Drinking and the Adolescent Brain

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Alcohol and teenagers has always been a volatile mixture. There are many reasons for this, but the most prevalent are peer pressure, curiosity and neglect. Underage drinking is a rising cause for concern in the United States. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that by the time minors reach eight grade, almost 50% have had at least one drink, with about 20% reporting that they have been drunk. Alcohol is one of the most prevalent drugs that creates many psychological and social consequences, especially for teenagers. There are other drugs that teenagers have access to which also have many devastating physical and psychological effects, but the most readily available and accessible drug for teenagers is alcohol.

There are many consequences related to underage drinking, ranging from injury, social consequences, and the effects of alcohol on the brain. Of course, when describing injuries there is a wide range, starting by the obvious car related such as drinking and driving. The same study states that underage alcohol use is more likely to kill a young adult than other illegal drugs. Out of all the crashes and accidents in young adults, a majority of the fatalities involved alcohol use. There are other injuries that happen as a result of alcohol. Psychological trauma, physically irreversible damage, and emotional trauma are some of the most common side effects of alcohol and other drugs such as heroin and marijuana. There are many studies that prove that alcohol is the biggest gateway drug that leads to other drug use.

Once the teenagers have accepted their use of alcohol, they are more likely to view other drugs as ok to experiment with. The biggest problem with alcohol is that in addition to being subtle, it is also addictive. Subtle is a description for how it sneaks up on the user. A teenager tries one drink and does not have any bad reaction. They most likely enjoy it. If not necessarily the taste, the momentary status that comes along with being viewed by their peers as cool or grown up. (Anonymous 2010) They crave that acceptance among their peers and this is the biggest reason for teenagers to start drinking.

A very important consequence - especially among teenagers - is the way it affects family relationships. It is common for teenagers to withdraw from their family and other relationships as they become more addicted to alcohol. Even though the alcohol use occurs in social settings, teenagers who have developed a problem become withdrawn and depend on the alcohol to bring out their personality. It is only when they are drunk that they feel good about themselves and those around them. Another social consequence is related to the physical effects that happen as brain function is impaired. First of all, excess alcohol can create situations that allow for sexual assault, especially among young women. Problems such as date rape and high-risk sexual behaviors can stem from the misuse of alcohol. It is the effect that alcohol has on the brain which creates these behaviors.

First of all, alcohol in excess can create mental confusion, difficulty walking, slurred speech, impaired memories, difficulty with muscle coordination, and leading up to liver disease. Other health risks of alcohol include stomach ulcers, liver problems, heart problems, and malnutrition. These problems generally occur in people who have been drinking over a longer period of time and are not always seen in teens, but can result as they grow older if they continue to drink. When you actually have drunk so much alcohol at one time that all of the symptoms are present, one can actually have alcohol poisoning, which adds irregular heartbeat, vomiting, seizures, stupor or even a coma to the mix. (Anonymous, 2003)

The effect alcohol has on the brain is not just physical. On the psychological aspects, it impairs not just behavior, but learning as well. The constant misuse of alcohol has been shown to create memory impairment and even learning difficulties, because alcohol over long term kills brain cells. Depending on the brain cells affected by the alcohol, the psychological and intellectual effects will vary on the person.

Some people have shown marked personality changes as alcohol is abused over a period of time, while others show a marked slow down in the ability to learn and interact socially with their peers. According to Feldman, alcohol is a depressant, which simply means that the more you drink, the worse your effects are and more the body needs the alcohol to dull unpleasant feelings about life in general outside of the alcohol stupor. You don't even have to drink daily, because binge drinking can also create similar effects on the person.

Psychoactive drugs are those that influence a person's emotions, perceptions and behaviors. They can regulate moods, calm nerves, and generate a feeling of well-being or euphoria. Even caffeine is a psychoactive drug. While seemingly harmless, it is addictive, and many people cannot function without a daily dose. Drugs work by altering the s

Psychoactive drugs are those that influence a person's emotions, perceptions and behaviors. They can regulate moods, calm nerves, and generate a feeling of well-being or euphoria. Even caffeine is a psychoactive drug. While seemingly harmless, it is addictive, and many people cannot function without a daily dose. Drugs work by altering the nervous system in some specific way. Some block transmission, others block nerve receptors, while some minimize effects on the nervous system. The most dangerous drugs are the addictive ones, which produce some sort of biological or psychological dependence.(Feldman 2009) Psychological dependence is the mental process that the user has where they tell themselves that they cannot live without the effects of a particular drug. This has been proven to exist by simple sugar pill tests. When a patient is psychologically dependent on a drug, they can be given a sugar pill - while being told that it is the particular drug - and the effect on the body will be the same. The patient will react the same way as if they had received the real drug. This is how powerful psychological addiction can become.

As previously discussed, underage drinking leads to other drug use and addictions as well. This is partially the reason for alcohol being designated a gateway drug. In this particular study over a 30 day period, only from 1% to 4% of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders reported using cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, or any of these substances in the previous 30 days. The use of other substances during the month preceding the study was more prevalent, with from 9% to 21% of students reporting marijuana use and from 19% to 34% reporting cigarette use. Alcohol use was even higher, with 25% of eighth graders, 39% of 10th graders, and 51% of 12th graders reporting that they drank in the previous month.(Rafaelli 2008) A majority of the problems that start with the alchol are augmented by the other drugs.

Journalist and author Robbie Woliver recently published a story about heroin use in teenagers. He did a story that generated national awards on the increasing use of heroin among middle and high schoolers in the United States. The conclusion of his investigation can best be stated as "So it is no big deal to them; it's like smoking a marijuana joint. To them, pill-taking, pot smoking or shooting heroin are interchangeable. They know how addictive heroin is, but they just don't care. They know they'll end up in jail, but they just don't care. They know their friends are dying from it, but they just don't care. And this is the most important part, the key to understanding this rise in the use of heroin: this is not a drug-dazed haze that's making them not be able to make wise decisions, it happened well before they started using. These kids just don't think it's a big deal one way or another--there is no stigma any longer, nor is it a badge of honor. It doesn't make them "cool." It's just what everybody does. No big deal." (Woliver 2010) Here he is referring to the enormous majority of all of the students questioned during the course of the investigation. Of course, much of this activity occurred in the social settings, the parties, the unsupervised get-togethers, all without parental knowledge or much less, consent.

This also leads to the psychological effect that these drugs are having on the brains and processes of these teenagers. They have become so nonchalant that they admit their addiction but refuse to see it as a problem. The health concerns, the daily life risks, the aggressive behaviors, the consequences mean nothing to this particular generation. The casual attitude that the reporter described during the course of his investigation is becoming commonplace for the youth of today. This is not just limited to drug use, but there has been an increase in serious criminal activity in juveniles from past decades. In Florida alone over the past few years there have been a high than average number of juveniles tried as adults. Part of this can be linked directly to the situations described in the paper, but it can also be attributed to the psychological issues that have not been addressed.

Another important effect of drug use is that teenagers tend to hide it. There are many ways to tell how a teenager is hiding their drug use. Mattresses, closets, and other wardrobe items are excellent places to stash marijuana. Common items like aerosol cans and thinners hiding in corners or closets are also indications of drug use. These are attributed to another teenage drug phenomenon called huffing. (Patch 2009) Huffing leaves deep damage to the brain tissues, much more quickly than alcohol, and with stronger and more severe side effects. There have been cases that have actually seen teenagers be hospitalized with chemical overdoses from huffing.

While underage drinking is an extremely high concern, it is important to realize that many underage drinkers are simply emulating behavior they see at home or in social settings that they are exposed to. This simply means that the psychological effects of alcohol on the adults create a cycle that is likely to be repeated by the children of the adults who are already dependent on the alcohol. In the study previously mentioned, less than one third of the parents interviewed were aware that their children drank or did any kind of drugs. Now of those parents who were aware of their children's activities, half were consenting, and the other half were not.

Even those who may not have drunk so much during their early teens tend to fall into the trap as they hit college. One study states that 41% of college students are classified as heavy drinkers; and even college students that were less inclined to drink during high school tend to really step up their drinking, some times out drinking the ones who started at an earlier place in life.(Feldman 2009) Environment plays a large role, because of the sorority and fraternity life found on many campuses. While peer pressure may have been present in certain groups in high school, in colleges with active sororities and fraternities the pressure is much greater to party - which leads to the drinking, the overdoses, and the alcohol poisoning.

This is an excellent example of the social environment that affects the decisions that teenagers make regarding alcohol. When teenagers perceive marginal approval from their parents, or they have adult role models that emulate those behaviors, they are much more likely to fall into similar behaviors. This is called adaptive learning. All of these environmental factors play a role in the psychology of why a teenager starts addictive behaviors.

As long as alcohol continues to be readily accessible to teenagers, it will also continue to be one of the most prevalent drugs that create many psychological and social consequences. There are other drugs such as heroin, marijuana, and cocaine, which teenagers have access to and have many devastating physical and psychological effects, but the most readily available and accessible drug for teenagers is alcohol. Alcoholism is a multi-pronged disease that needs a multi-pronged approach in order to cure it - and in some cases, the physical or psychological damage is so great that it cannot be cured - which leads to inevitable death.