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Drinking at a young age

 Most countries where alcohol consumption is legal have a mandated threshold age at which buying and/or consuming alcohol becomes permitted. This is because drinking at a young age has implications for a person's health and development. Research suggests that underage drinking, recurring drinking episodes during adolescence and binge drinking can negatively affect brain development, study habits and the development of skills needed to successfully transition into adulthood.1



Drinking patterns at a young age are influenced by a variety of factors: family, peers, media, cultural norms and religion, and government policies. For example, alcohol advertising has been shown to affect adolescents' intentions to drink, and there is a strong body of evidence that this advertising increases the likelihood that adolescents and young adults will start drinking or drink more.2 Government policies can influence these patterns through various means, including pricing strategies, restricting the availability of alcohol, and strictly regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages.3

Important to note is the role of families in youth alcohol consumption. Family composition, income and violence are some ares that are associated with youth alcohol and substance use.4


Harm to young people

Young people are at increased risk for harm from certain drinking patterns due to several factors. Physiologically, they are still undergoing developmental changes. Within an adolescent brain a high level of development is occurring, which sets the foundation for the skills that person has as an adult, including planning, integrating information, problem solving, judgment and reasoning.1 These important changes make an adolescent brain more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol when compared to an adult brain.1


Alcohol and education

Alcohol damages areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory, verbal skills and visual-spatial cognition. As a result, excessive alcohol use impairs the formation of new memories, problem-solving abilities, abstract thinking, attention and concentration. Research suggests that adolescent alcohol use negatively affects neurocognitive functioning, such as harming the capacity to study and perform well on tests.1,5 Since adolescence is an important period for brain development, the use of alcohol may have lasting negative effects as a person transitions into adulthood.3


Alcohol and behaviour

Young people are at risk for harmful alcohol-related behaviours, including binge drinking, self-reported relationship problems, involvement in road accidents and high-risk sexual behaviour.6 These behaviours have their own implications for the health and safety of young people, including damage to brain development, risk of injury and death, and increased risk of violence and infectious disease.


Advice to parents

Parents could keep the following in mind:

  • maintain a relationship with your child in which openness is encouraged. This increases the likelihood that your child will tell you about his/her desires and concerns;
  • Discuss with your child the risks of alcohol use;
  • Do this in a positive, non-threatening way;
  • Make clear rules about until what age your child is not allowed to drink alcohol (for example the legal drinking age in your jurisdiction). Discuss this when they are still young.


 1. Zeigler DW, Wang CC, Yoast RA, Dickinson BD, McCafree MA, Robinowitz CB, et al. The neurocognitive effects of alcohol on adolescents and college students. Preventive Medicine, 40:23-32, 2005.

2. Babor T, Caetano R, Casswell S, Edwards G, Giesbrecht N, Gragam K, et al. (2010). Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity (Second Edition). New York: Oxfrord University Press.

3. World Health Organization. The global trategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. World Health Organization, Geneva, 2010.

4. Obot IS & Saxena S. (eds.). Substance Use Among Young People in Urban Environments. World Health Organization, Geneva, 2005.

5. Squeglia LM, Spadoni AD, Infante MA, Myers MG, Tapert SF. Initiating moderate to heavy alcohol use predicts changes in neuropsychological functioning for adolescent girls and boys. Psych Addict Behav. 23(4):715-722, 2009.

6. Jernigan D. Global Status Report: Alcohol and Young People. World Health Organization, Geneva, 2001.