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Teenage drinking

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.

Is there a safe drinking level for teenagers? 

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.

What's the evidence that alcohol is harmful to teenagers? 

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:

  • alcohol use affects developing brains and can lead to long-term learning difficulties and memory problems
  • the earlier teenagers start drinking, the more likely they are to drink at higher levels during adolescence - and this may increase the risk of getting into trouble with alcohol in later adolescence and as adults
  • while teenagers are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol on learning, memory and judgment, they also seem to be less easily sedated by alcohol and their co-ordination is less affected. This means they can stay awake and drink for longer than adults - which may partly explain why some adolescents binge drink
  • the risks of accidents, injuries, violence and self-harm are high among drinkers aged under 18
  • drinking in adolescence is linked to risky sexual behaviour
  • drinking in teenage years is linked to higher risks of alcohol dependence in young adulthood, even when drinking at low-risk levels.

How big a problem is risky drinking among teenagers? 

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:

  • For 12-17 year olds, around one in 10 report binge drinking or drinking at risky levels
  • For 16-17 year olds, one in five drink at risky levels.

Can't parents teach children to drink responsibly at home by offering small amounts of alcohol at social gatherings? 

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:

  • teenagers should drink at a low-risk level and in a safe environment supervised by adults
  • parents should explain the risks of alcohol and the difference between drinking in low risk ways - in small amounts and with food, for instance - and drinking in harmful ways such as getting drunk, mixing alcohol with other drugs or combining drinking with activities such as driving, swimming and operating machinery
  • parents and other adults considering serving alcohol to under-18s at home should check the legal situation in their state because they may be breaking the law.

How can parents influence teenagers to be responsible with alcohol? 

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.

Further information 

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:

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:

DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Teenagers and alcohol - a quick guide for parents. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2009 [accessed 2 Sept 2010] Available from:

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:

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: (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:$File/mono58.pdf (PDF, 341Kb)

Last published: 30 July 2011

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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