Kavanaugh hearing put spotlight on teens and alcohol, experts warn: ‘Adolescent drinking is a problem’

  • Oct. 8, 2018 3:28 p.m.

With a party involving teen drinking serving as the backdrop of sexual assault accusations examined in confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, experts say alcohol use among young people remains a pervasive problem that should not be minimized.

“It is absolutely still an issue. Adolescent drinking is a problem,” said Karen Wolownik Albert, a social worker and executive director of Gateway Foundation’s Lake County treatment center. “It does tend to get normalized … which is a mistake.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, about 60 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders reported ever having had a drink of alcohol, while about 30 percent reported having had a drink in the previous month. Although that represents a downward trend from past decades (in 1991, more than 80 percent of high school students reported ever having tried alcohol), that number is still too high, Albert said.

“There is a very strong correlation that the earlier young people start using alcohol, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder,” she said. “We see that if young people delay drinking until (the legal drinking age of) 21, their rates are much, much less.”

Albert said the notion that high school or college drinking is a normal rite of passage —a point of debate during the Kavanaugh hearings —still exists and is dangerous.

“We should not minimize this as normal adolescent behavior. These substances are very dangerous for adolescents, mostly because of brain development,” she said.

In addition to addiction issues, the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain are even stronger for the developing teenage brain, said Amy Herrold, research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“The parts of the brain that are really important for making decisions … are rapidly developing during this time frame,” she said. “That is why it’s so important for adolescents to treat their brain very carefully.”

Herrold noted that the brain is developing not just in the teenage years, but into the 20s and beyond. Some areas —especially those that control decision-making —are not fully formed until age 30. Alcohol use, especially binge drinking, is a problem at any age, but those effects are exacerbated in the younger years, she said. “You want to make sure (the brain) is in as healthy of an environment as possible.”

Herrold also said the matter is even more serious if a teenager’s brain has been subject to a brain injury like a concussion —a possibility among young athletes. When drinking is mixed with brain injury, the chances of alcohol cravings and addiction can increase, she said.

Albert said it’s important for parents to talk to their children about drugs and alcohol before they hit the teen years, when they might first be introduced to or pressured to drink.

Studies have shown that, at some point after eighth grade, teens start to think their parents aren’t as disapproving of underage drinking, Albert said. “Somewhere between eighth and 12th grade, students are getting that message from their parents, whether it’s intended or not intended,” she said.

Modeling responsible behavior can help, but what’s most important is for parents to have open communication that underage drinking is not OK and how it’s harmful, Albert said.

When those conversations should start depends on the child’s maturity, the family situation and other factors, she said. But “it usually has to start earlier than when parents think it should start.”

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