What Every Parent Should Know About Kids and Underage Drinking

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Through its partnership with Intermountain Medical Center, Parents Empowered shared creative messages in the hospital about alcohol’s effect on teenage brains.

"What we hope to do is educate parents and kids in the community to see the impact of underage drinking and do something about it — to have critical conversations between parents and children," said David Grauer, administrator at Intermountain Medical Center.

Here are some key messages for parents to know about the neurological functions alcohol disrupts.

Behavioral issues

  • Among underage drinkers, 39 percent exhibit serious behavioral problems.
  • Sixty-seven percent of teens who drink before age 15 will try other illicit drugs.
  • Underage drinkers are four times more likely to suffer depression and are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • The prefrontal cortex — where decisions are made — and the ventral striatum, part of the brain's reward system, share connections that are affected by alcohol, making it more likely for a teen to act impulsively.
  • Attention, concentration, and self-control are all processed through the prefrontal cortex, and alcohol in a teen's brain can inhibit all of them, which makes it more difficult for teens to differentiate between actions that are safe or hazardous.

Learning difficulties

  • Underage drinking is one of the strongest predictors of academic problems.
  • White matter wires the brain together, and when something is learned, a new connection is created in the white matter between different parts of the brain. Teenagers who drink are prone to white matter damage, which can prevent those new connections from being made and limit their ability to learn.
  • Researchers have found damaged white matter in the brains of teens who drank. They believe this damage negatively affects boys' attention span and girls' ability to comprehend and interpret visual information.
  • Memories are stored in the hippocampus. Since this part of the brain is still developing during the teenage years, alcohol can greatly impact a teen's ability to recall a previously stored thought. Teens are also less likely to remember what they did while drinking.

Long-term brain damage

  • Underage drinking can negatively impact both short- and long-term growth and development.
  • Teens who drink underage can have significantly smaller hippocampi, by as much as 10 percent. This deficit may remain through adulthood.
  • Underage drinking can cause severe changes in the prefrontal area of the brain, which plays an important role in forming adult personality and behavior. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long term and irreversible.

Start talking to your kids now

  • The more a teenager drinks, the more difficult it is to stop. Starting with the first drink, the prefrontal cortex is altered in a way that makes it difficult for teenagers to know when enough is enough.
  • Teens who reach age 21 without abusing alcohol are almost certain not to do it later in life.

In addition to Intermountain Medical Center, Parents Empowered also works closely with the Utah Governor's Office. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says these messages are important to get parents involved. "We're working with our law enforcement community and we're getting reports back that they're seeing fewer incidents," said Lt. Gov. Cox. "Our DUIs are down among teenage drivers, so all of that is good news, but we still have more to do."