Alcohol is a common part of Australian culture. We drink when we get together with friends, to celebrate weddings, birthdays and other big occasions and to unwind after work. As drinking is widely promoted as being fun and glamorous, it should come as no surprise that teenagers want to join in. But alcohol and adolescence are an unhealthy mix.
Alarmingly, recent studies show that alcohol may have a harmful effect on the developing teenage brain. The risks of accidents, injuries, violence and self-harm are also high among drinkers younger than 18.
Research into the effects of alcohol on teenage brains and teenage behaviour is ongoing. Although some experts have different opinions as to whether there's a safe or low-risk level of drinking for teenagers, research has shown that the brain is more sensitive to damage from alcohol in childhood and adolescence because it's still developing. That's why the advice from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) alcohol guidelines is that not drinking alcohol is the safest course of action for young people under 18. It's especially important that under-15s avoid drinking as they have the greatest risk of harm from alcohol.
One reason teenagers can be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol is because the developing brain in children and adolescents is more sensitive to its damaging effects.
Research so far shows that:
Rates of drinking at harmful levels by 12-17 year-olds have doubled in the last 20 years. According to the 2005 Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug Survey:
According to Bupa Healthwatch research, 49 percent of Australian adults believe that underage drinking under parental supervision in the home is acceptable. While many people may see this as reasonable advice, a better understanding of the effects of alcohol on the teenage brain casts doubt on this idea and suggests an alcohol-free adolescence is safer.
However, if teenagers do drink alcohol, the word from the Australian Government is:
The best thing parents can do is to set a good example and be responsible in their own use of alcohol - even when children are small they will observe what their parents do. Teenagers are very aware of double standards and will be less receptive to guidelines about alcohol if their parents aren't responsible with alcohol themselves. It's also suggested that giving children clear rules about alcohol use and carefully supervising children from 10 years of age results in lower levels of alcohol use and dependence by the age of 21.
DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Teenagers and alcohol - a quick guide for parents
Department of Health and Ageing. Teenagers and alcohol - a guide for parents
Alcohol policy coalition. Position statement - supply of alcohol to under 18 year-olds in private settings. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 2 Sept 2010] Available from: http://www.aph.gov.au/
Bupa Foundation. Bupa Healthwatch Survey - Wave Three. 2009.
DrugInfo Clearinghouse. The effects of alcohol on the young brain: for workers. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2005. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/
DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Teenagers and alcohol - a quick guide for parents. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2009 [accessed 2 Sept 2010] Available from: http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/
National Alcohol Strategy. Teenagers and alcohol - a guide for parents. [online] Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. c2002 [last updated Jun 2006, accessed 2 Sept 2010] Available from: http://www.alcohol.gov.au/internet/alcohol/publishing.nsf/Content/guidelines
National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf (PDF, 2.3Mb)
Spear LP. The adolescent brain and age-related behavioural manifestations. Neuroscience and Biobehavrioral Reviews. 2000; 24(4): 417-463.
White V Hayman J. Australian secondary school students' use of alcohol in 2005. Carlton, VIC: Cancer Council Victoria. 2006 [accessed 2 Sept 2010] Available from: http://www.health.gov.au.
Last published: 30 July 2011
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