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Consequences of Underage Alcohol Use

Teenage party? Big deal. Kids drink. It’s a part of growing up. Why should law enforcement get involved? Granted, it violates the law that these children are consuming alcohol, but it’s only a statutory violation. A few more years and their behavior wouldn’t even turn a head. In fact, it’s normal. Ok, maybe it’s a bit concerning. After all, teenagers don’t know how to act most of the time anyway, especially in packs. Now add alcohol consumption. Too many hormones and too little impulse control is never a good combination. Don’t we have better more pressing things to worry about than teenagers drinking? Isn’t that more of a parenting issue?

As a law enforcement officer, you might have said any of these things, or many of these things to yourself and to your partners. There’s probably nothing more frustrating on a busy Friday night than having a CAD full of calls and pulling up to the scene of a teen party. You know it’s going to involve more time than you have to spare. After all, dealing with minors, you’ll have to call all their parents and then wait for them to show up before you can move on to the next emergency situation. When you pull up and you hear the music and see the flashing lights, maybe see a few lanky teens scurry into the house and shut the door. No one’s being hurt. No one’s screaming or throwing chairs through the window. It’s just a group of kids drinking. It would be so easy to say that nothing’s happening and go back in service. The truth is that teenagers drinking is a big problem and can have devastating consequences. In essence, it is law enforcement’s problem because part of our jobs is to protect the citizens we serve even if that means protecting them from themselves.

Alcohol is a huge part of the American culture. It’s prevalent in movies, television shows and books. Portrayals of people imbibing are on billboards and in magazines. It seems like everyone drinks. It’s a social institution. At least that is the way is seems to teenagers and unfortunately they are a group of individuals that don’t understand the physical, emotional and mental dangers of alcohol consumption especially during these fundamental developmental years.

Teen Minds

Scientists have found that humans continue to develop until they are 25 years old. Due to this, consumption of alcohol by teenagers can have a profound effect on their brain development. Research has found that alcohol can reduce the size of the hippocampus the part of the brain that handles memory and learning. Underage alcohol use can have serious and irreversible affects on learning and academics. Alcohol also affects the myelination process in adolescents. Cognitive deficiencies can be the result of this disruption. Over time, the continued use of alcohol and its effect on the brain can stunt a young person’s ability to optimize the use of their mind and advance into complex stages of brain development.

Social and Emotional Affects

It doesn’t take a group of scientists and years of research to proclaim that adolescents have a profound change in behavior. An Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) report on underage drinking outlines several key areas where adolescents change socially and emotionally. First, youth are experimenting with identities to figure out who they are. Often teens change their appearance and their interests to experiment with a new identity but they can also try drinking as well. Youth are also rebelling against adults as a way of learning to make their own decisions. Since most adults condemn underage drinking, some teens will do it to prove to themselves they have a bit of independence. Youth are also heavily influenced by their peers and social interactions have high importance to them. If a teen changes their peer group to one that encourages drinking, they might begin to drink to not be in conflict with their friends. This influence is double-edged because if other friend’s discourage alcohol use the child might turn their back on this group because they feel judged and unaccepted exacerbating the negative peer influence. Finally, youth often seek out risk taking behaviors and the use of alcohol adds to this exponentially and potentially lethally.  Alcohol use has also been associated with self-esteem issues, depression, antisocial behaviors and anxiety.

Health and Safety Consequences

Adolescents are already going through a period where their under-developed pre-frontal cortex creates impulsivity, poor decision making, lack of consequential fore-sight and behavioral boundaries. When an alcoholic haze is added to this, it’s a recipe for disaster. Underage drinking can lead to risky sexual behaviors, alcohol poisoning, other drug use, driving while impaired and accidental injuries and death. Alcohol consumption also increases the likelihood of violent behavior increasing homicides, physical violence, sexual assaults and suicide.  The choices an adolescent makes while impaired can have short and long term consequences and can be life altering.

How Officers Can Make a Difference

With the myriad of consequences underage drinking has, law enforcement professionals must view this issue as a high-priority. By treating calls involving underage drinking as serious and taking each opportunity to educate and mentor adolescents, officers can potentially change the course of a young life. As juvenile justice professionals, we can help in the fight against underage drinking by being aware, recognizing signs of a youth at risk and knowing what resources are available to assist the child and his or her family. Officers who interact with adolescents can be honest and outright about the affects of drinking when communicating with youth. Talk to them about how choosing not to drink is a sign of maturity and responsibility. Teach them realistic ways to say no in a situation involving peer pressure. Remind them that not everyone drinks and that it’s okay to wait until their older to do so. They aren’t missing out on anything. Form partnerships with other trusted adults, such as parents, community leaders, teachers and those in ministry. The more consistent a youth’s message is the more likely they are to follow the advice. If you are called to a party involving young drinkers, take it seriously and reflect to the child’s parents or guardians that this is not just a legal issue. Offer support and resources if you can. We can make a difference in many ways by holding youth and their guardians responsible for their health and safety. So, next time you get called to a teen party don’t look at it as a waste of time but recognize it as a chance to possibly save a life.