When you’re a student, whether in high school or college, you might feel like everyone around you drinks underage. It can seem like a rite of passage or even the norm, but the reality is there’s a reason there is a drinking age and that it’s 21 in the United States.
While underage drinking has been on the decline in the U.S., it still happens so much that it’s considered a significant public health concern.
Among students in high school and college, binge drinking is especially prevalent. With binge drinking, there is usually a pattern of alcohol abuse that begins when you’re around 13, and then it increases during your teen years, and peaks between the ages of 18 to 22. While many young people will stop binge drinking gradually after college, for some it can become a problem that follows them throughout their life.
If you’re a student, the following are some of the real, relevant reasons to avoid drinking underage.
Increased Risk of Car Accidents
If you’re a teen or young adult driver, you’re already at a disadvantage because of your lack of experience on the road.
If you add substances to that, it can be a deadly combination.
One-third of all car accident fatalities among teens result from crashes that involved alcohol.
According to HealthGrove.com, car accidents are already the leading cause of death for Americans who are under the age of thirty in this country, and many of these involve alcohol.
You May Be More Likely to be An Alcoholic
One of the reasons it’s illegal to drink under the age of 21 is because we know from science and research that the brain is still developing until around this age.
As an adolescent or young adult, while you might not think so, your brain is still very much in its developmental phase.
If you expose your brain to substances, including alcohol during these developmental years, it can put you at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol or other substances later in life.
This is because alcohol and other substances affect the chemicals in the brain and the pathways through which brain chemicals travel. With repeated substance exposure at an early age, your brain may be conditioned to see the use of these substances as normal.
If you drink while your brain is still developing, it can also cause long-term memory and cognitive damage.
When you drink, your brain processes slow down, and with large quantities of alcohol, your brain stops recording memories. That’s why you might experience a blackout.
Long-term alcohol exposure can mean long-term memory effects instead of just short-term blackouts.
When you’re in school and you drink, particularly excessively, it can impact your academic performance.
Sometimes when you’re young and you drink you may think there’s no way you could be an alcoholic, but in reality, many young people meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.
If you have a parent who struggles with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, this can raise your chances of also developing an alcohol use disorder even more.
Increased Risk of Mental Health Issues
Many teens and college students in America already struggle with mental health issues, including symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The use of alcohol can increase those symptoms or contribute to their development.
Alcohol use is linked to aggression, anxiety, depression, and anger, even though in the short-term, it might feel like it’s improving your mood or reducing your stress.
When you drink regularly, it lowers the serotonin levels in your brain, and serotonin is the brain chemical that plays an integral role in mood regulation.
The use of alcohol can be a vicious cycle in someone with a mental health or mood disorder.
For example, if you use alcohol to deal with existing symptoms of depression or anxiety, it can worsen them and then you’ll drink more to try and compensate.
Even if you don’t have the symptoms of a mental or mood disorder, drinking can cause you to have poor sleep quality, which can lead to mental health issues and diminish your mood. You might also feel tired or depressed as you deal with the symptoms of drinking, such as a hangover.
Alcohol is linked to impulsive behavior, including self-harm and suicide also.
There are legal issues that can result from underage drinking, and they’re far-reaching.
If you are caught drinking underage, the consequences vary depending on the state and the situation but can include suspension of your driver’s license, potential time in jail, fines, and community service.
Many students who are caught drinking underage may also have to take alcohol classes.
If you’re caught drinking and driving, then the penalties are even more severe.
If you’re underage, even having trace amounts of alcohol in your system when you drive might mean automatic arrest and DUI.
Sexual and Risky Behaviors
The idea of alcohol increasing impulsivity is important for students to understand. When you’re drinking and especially underage, it can increase the likelihood you engage in risky sexual behavior or coerced sexual activities.
Research has shown alcohol use among 8th and 10th graders can increase risky behaviors as well as the likelihood they will become victims.
Risky sexual behaviors can cause unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
If you’re under the influence, along with sexual behaviors, self-harm, and car crashes, you’re more likely to put yourself and others at risk of injuries and accidents such as falls and drownings.
You’re more likely to engage or be the victim of a violent crime when you’re drinking too.
If you’re a student and you feel like you could have a problem with alcohol, there are likely campus resources you can turn to. You should also try to speak with your parents or someone you trust, and if that’s not an option perhaps a counselor.
The use of alcohol when you’re underage can impact your life for years or decades to come, so it’s important to get a handle on the problem sooner rather than later.