Alcohol is widely used by teenagers. Around 73 per cent of Australian teenagers have tried alcohol at least once. Alcohol is tolerated as a socially acceptable drug, but it is responsible for most drug-related deaths in the teenage population. Alcohol is also associated with a variety of serious health risks, including unsafe sex. It’s difficult to prevent teenagers from experimenting with alcohol, but parents can encourage sensible drinking habits.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used drugs in Australia. Estimates suggest that half of the population over the age of 14 years drinks alcohol at least weekly. The safest level of drinking for teenagers is no drinking.

Parents believe alcohol is less dangerous than other drugs
Adolescence is typically a time of experimentation, and around 73 per cent of teenagers try alcohol at least once. This reflects Australia’s tolerant approach to alcohol use.

There is some evidence to suggest parents are so alarmed at the thought of their children using ‘harder’ drugs that alcohol is considered a lesser and, therefore, more acceptable ‘evil’. However, it has been estimated that in 2003 3,430 Australians died due to alcohol use and in 2001 there were 64,782 alcohol-related episodes that needed care in hospital. Both of these are more than those attributed to illicit drug use.

Alcohol – the risks
Irresponsible use of alcohol can lead to:

  • Binge drinking
  • Drink driving
  • Unsafe sex.

Teenagers and binge drinking
Binge drinking can lead to serious health problems. Binge drinking means drinking significantly more than the low-risk levels advised by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). For adult males, this means more than seven standard drinks at a time and for adult females more than five standard drinks at a time. Just over 10 per cent of Australian teenagers binge drink every week.

Teenage brains are still developing and the areas of the brain that are undergoing the most dramatic changes during the teenage years are the frontal lobe and hippocampus. These areas are associated with motivation, impulse control and addiction.

Alcohol is a neurotoxin, which means it can poison the brain. One of the effects of excessive alcohol use is that it interferes with vitamin B absorption; this prevents the brain from working properly. Long-term binge drinking can lead to a range of disorders, collectively known as alcohol-related brain damage. Symptoms can include learning and memory problems, and difficulties with balance.

Drink driving
Car accidents are a leading cause of death for teenagers. In 2006–07, one out of four drivers or riders killed or injured in road accidents in Victoria were over the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration.

Alcohol and sex
Alcohol impairs judgement, and teenagers are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices when they have been drinking. Other associated risks include:

  • Date rape
  • Sexual intercourse without a condom
  • Exposure to sexually transmissible infections
  • Possible pregnancy.

Other risks
Alcohol is a significant factor in other risky situations, including:

  • Fighting or brawling
  • Drowning.

Parental role modelling
Studies have shown that the most influential role models for children are their parents. Children learn by imitation, so it is important that parents demonstrate sensible drinking behaviours. Suggestions include:

  • Drink moderately.
  • Don’t drink every time you socialise.
  • Never drink drive.

Teaching responsible drinking
Parents can’t prevent their teenager from experimenting with alcohol, but they can encourage sensible drinking habits. Suggestions include:

  • Offer good role modelling.
  • Start teaching your child about alcohol from an early age.
  • Explain the downside of heavy drinking, such as vomiting, head spins, passing out and hangovers.
  • Educate your child on the links between drinking and dangerous behaviour, such as unsafe sex.
  • Teach your child sensible tactics such as standard drink recommendations, ‘pacing’ themselves, alternating alcohol drinks with non-alcoholic beverages and not drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Talk about the dangers of drink driving and plan alternatives together, such as public transport, designated drivers or calling home.
  • Encourage your child to talk about the dangers of alcohol with their friends, so they can come up with ways to look out for each other.

Other factors that can prevent alcohol abuse
According to Australian research, there are many important factors that help reduce the likelihood of a teenager abusing alcohol. As well as good parental role modelling, these factors include:

  • A loving, supportive home life
  • Educational programs in schools on the use and misuse of alcohol
  • Development of personal, social, academic and employment skills
  • A healthy lifestyle, such as regular exercise and a love of sports
  • Restrictions on alcohol advertising
  • Avoiding the use of scare tactics, which can backfire and increase alcohol use among teenagers.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • DrugInfo Clearinghouse Tel. 1300 858 584 – for information
  • DirectLine Tel. 1800 888 236 – for 24-hour confidential drug and alcohol telephone counselling, information and referral
  • Family Drug Help – for information and support for people concerned about a relative or friend using drugs Tel. 1300 660 068

Things to remember

  • Around 73 per cent of Australian teenagers have tried alcohol at least once.
  • Alcohol is responsible for most drug-related deaths in the teenage population.
  • Parents can’t prevent their teenager from experimenting with alcohol, but they can encourage sensible drinking habits.