Numbers for underage drinking have slightly decreased over the past decade—but only for boys. Most strategies to curb underage drinking have been aimed at boys, so while it seems they’ve been taking effect on adolescent boys, teenage girls are still drinking at the same rate and in some cases have surpassed their male peers. Many factors have contributed to this alarming phenomenon, from internalized social pressure to self-medicating coping mechanisms, which has led to severe consequences: early-developing brain damage, car crashes/DUIs, and teenage pregnancies and STDs.
With girls continuing to be exposed to alcohol substances from their peers, their home, and the media, the growing demand to educate these young women about the consequences of binge drinking and alcoholism becomes imperative. About 1 in 4 teen girls have reported to not only drink, but to binge drink, consuming toxic levels of alcohol in one night on a relatively routine basis (e.g. on the weekends), which risks the possibility of forming an abusive lifestyle with alcohol that can damage their health and relationships before they even reach the age of 26.
Teen Girls Have Caught Up with the Boys
Dr. Hui Cheng, an adjunct assistant professor at Michigan State University, and her colleagues collected data on 390,000 teenagers and young adults in the United States, with ages ranging from 12 to 24 years old, who participated in government surveys on drug use and health within the time frame of 2002-2013. In this study, researchers found that girls are more likely to start drinking at a younger age than boys, particularly in the mid-adolescence years (around 15-16 years old).
Across the country, about 8.7 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 reported current alcohol consumption in the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). However, in regards to alcohol consumption within the past year, nearly 7.3 million underage Americans were girls. Among 12- and 17-year olds, more girls reported to drinking alcohol within the past month than their male peers (12.3% vs. 10.8% respectively). While boys tend to drink more than girls when they do drink, the trend still remains that girls start drinking earlier than boys at a time when severe consequences specific to their gender can occur.
Reasons Go Beyond Peer Pressure
The question is, why?
Some reasons are a little more obvious than one would realize, but others aren’t—and there are several. Drinking—particularly binge drinking among youths—has become more socially acceptable, with plenty of movies advocating for wild and crazy adventures fueled by alcohol, such as The Hangover and Superbad. The fact that girls typically reach puberty earlier than boys can lead to some girls engaging in risky behaviors, such as drinking underage or partying with older males, as misguided actions to prove their independence.
Yet, some of the largest influences on why girls have been showing early habits of drinking are as following:
Internalized Social Pressure
Peer pressure is definitely involved when underage drinking is a discussion topic, but for teenage girls, peer pressure can mutate into internalized social pressure. Puberty, for most girls, is a time when they become more aware of societal standards, which can be overwhelming when they have yet to realize themselves as beautiful young women. Teen girls may be suffering from several self-esteem issues, whether they are unsatisfied with their body image or are still trying to discover their individual identities. The desire to fit in with their peers, regardless of whether they’ve experienced any negative feedback from them, remains at a high, so alcohol at gathering events is used as a tool to lower their inhibitions and social anxiety in order to get along with peers. It can create this mentality where people aren’t necessarily pressuring each other to drink, but everyone feels like they should.
Studies by the Partnership for a Drug Free America showed that teen girls are more likely to drink to escape problems or cope with frustrations and stress. Whether they’re going through family/home problems or dealing with the anxiety that comes with adolescence and high school priorities, teenage girls are more likely to be attuned to their feelings and internalize their personal issues. Instead of reaching out, they choose to take care of their problems themselves and may seek alcohol as a way to self-medicate.
At first glance, the solution might be to tell girls to be open about their problems, but in cases when issues are derived from their home environment, this can prove difficult or nearly impossible. Adults often minimize the stress felt by their children, particularly when their own problems are financially and legally-driven and have severe consequences if not resolved, but they forget that the stress their children are dealing with is the first stage of adulthood and a very harsh reality they’re facing for the first time. Without outreach from adults, many girls simply absorb the stress around them and use alcohol as a coping mechanism, which can translate into an unhealthy lifestyle for adulthood.
While most strategies to curb underage drinking have been aimed at boys and have seen significant results, researchers have noted that alcoholic substance advertisements continue to target young women—and consequently, underage girls—by promoting sweet, fruit-flavored drinks, such as wine coolers and alcopops, to make drinking easier and tastier, which may call for one of the largest factors in why underage drinking for teen girls haven’t dropped significantly over the past decade.
“There’s a whole new raft of products that have come out in the last 10 to 12 years that were oriented to young females,” says David Jerigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “Alcohol now gets sold to girls as a functional food: it gets sold with calorie information, a drink of fitness, a drink with health benefits.”
Newsweek, “Report Shows Teen Girls Are Drinking More than Boys, for Different Reasons”
Girls aged 12 to 20 are reported to seeing 30% more distilled spirits advertising per capita than women of legal drinking age. Exposure to alcohol advertisements has increased with internet use and social media, with several brands of alcoholic substances marketing themselves across YouTube, Facebook, and Vine.
Most reasons for why teen girls resort to drinking come from outside influence, but there have been studies to suggest that adolescents are more likely than adults to abuse alcohol because of their brain chemistry and current stage in development. The human brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, so during adolescent years, certain regions mature faster than others. While the region of the brain responsible for sound decision-making is still developing and going through hormonal changes, the teenage brain’s pleasure center has matured already. This accounts for why people seek out thrills and adventures much more during their adolescence than they care for picking out the right college to apply for—and as such, alcohol can have a connotation with pleasure, leading them toward addiction faster than adults who drink at legal age.
Consequences Hit Before They Know It
Alcohol abuse has consequences no matter what age the drinker is, but during youth years, the repercussions of one’s actions can last their entire lifetime. Teenage girls have higher chances of entering a dangerous situation while under the influence, which can lead to sexual assault, teenage pregnancy, brain damage, and even death.
Black-Outs Becoming a Norm
The goal for drinking alcohol for many youths is simply to get as drunk as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 90% of alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is through binge drinking. A study by Stanford University showed that teen girls were more likely to physically damage their brains from binge drinking in comparison to their male peers, due to their lower weight averages and the differences in how their livers process alcohol. Drinking until the point of black-out during adolescent years severely damages teen girls’ livers and kidneys if made into a routine habit, which can increase the chances of alcohol poisoning and death. Lack of alcohol education renders teenagers unprepared for emergency situations or under false impressions that blackouts are normal and overdoses can be “fixed” by ambulance trips to the hospital, so it necessary to educate young adults about the protocol of alcohol poisoning and prevention.
Many studies have shown the damages early drinking can affect brain functions. Memory, coordination, spatial awareness, and motor skills can show less activity in the brain during intoxication in teenagers, which if abused and prolonged can affect their adulthood. Even more apparent is their maturity levels. A study done by QUT’s Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) showed that the delta opioid peptide receptor (DOP-R) activity can be heavily affected by binge drinking, causing early drinkers to be kept in a perpetual adolescent state. Because their brains have not fully developed, neither is their emotional maturity, which can lead to huge problems when they must meet the demands of life in their adult years.
Waking Up to Strangers
Teenage girls face the dangers of sexual assault, rape, and teenage pregnancy while under the influence. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, which can give teen girls enough courage to flirt with others, but not enough reservation to reject advances and fight off physical attempts. About 100,000 underage drinkers have been victim of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Some girls drink to fit in with the crowd they’re with, but end up getting pressured into sex when they’re not in the mental state to properly think things through, stand up for themselves, or understand the consequences.
Additionally, underage drinkers are less likely to use protection during sexual activity, increasing their chances for unplanned teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s estimated that teen girls who binge drink are up to 63% more likely to become teen mothers and that early drinking habits can translate into teen mothers drinking during pregnancy to deal with the stress of their situation. Girls who are not prepared for mature dialogues before sexual intercourse are definitely not going to have them while drunk, and thus can be susceptible to HIV/AIDS, herpes, chlamydia, and other STDs and will have to treat certain diseases the rest of their lives.
Driving into Trouble
Teenagers have some of the highest rates in accidental car crashes and alcohol plays a big factor in accidents that turn fatal. Both passengers and drivers are affected when someone drives under the influence. Car crashes are noted to be the leading cause of death for teens, with about a quarter of fatal car accidents involving underage drinking. For teen girls whose assertive natures have washed away with the alcohol they’ve consumed, their tendency to enter a car with a driver who has been drinking is higher than their male peers.
The numbers are just as alarming for underage girls who not only get into a car under the influence but then also get behind the wheel. About 20% of people arrested for DUIs were women aged 18-20, with some reporting to be repeated offenders. Teen girls also have a tendency to commit double whammy offenses by driving under the influence and texting about it on social media. With hashtags like #drunkdriving and #dui, the severities of these offenses aren’t realized. Girls caught in this state of immaturity due to alcohol and binge drinking can cause innocent people to die, permanent physical damages from car crashes and/or be sentenced to years in prison.
Stop the Trend Before It’s Too Late
According to the National Institute of Health, a person is five times less likely to abuse alcohol in their adult years if she doesn’t start drinking until after the age of 15, and even more so if she starts drinking at the legal age of 21. For parents, it is important to have an open discussion about alcohol with your children and to approach it with patience and understanding.
- Talk about self-esteem. Many teen girls might keep their insecurities to themselves about their body image, relationships, and personal standing in the world. Teach them to love themselves. Discussing how to maintain good levels of self-esteem will encourage teens to reach out instead of self-medicate with alcohol.
- Establish trust. Fear of being punished for underage drinking leads many teenagers into getting into bad situations to avoid parents from finding out. Talk with your kids that if they find themselves drunk in a foreign place or with strangers, that they can look to you for help. Focus less on communicating punishment for their mistakes and more on that you will be there for them when they need it.
- Talk openly about your family history. If alcoholism or addiction runs in the family, you need to communicate this to your child. Teenagers are more receptive to the consequences of alcohol when they understand their family lives through it. Be open about your experiences.
- Be patient and understanding. You may not like what you hear what your child has done or going through, but you need to control your emotions. Otherwise, you might have your child push you away instead of being honest with you.
- Get to know their friends. Understanding who the people your child interacts with is important. Get to know their friends on a personal level so you can judge their character, not their appearance.
If you are concerned about your teenager potentially having an alcohol abuse problem, Recovery Hub has available resources to help you. For more information about recovery or to discuss the available treatment options, call Recovery Hub at 1-888-220-4325. Our specialists and intake team are always available to those in need. At Recovery Hub, we are personally invested in each and every patient. It’s our goal to help you or your loved one begin the healing journey and achieve lasting sobriety.