Things you should know

Risks associated with adolescent drinking

Alcohol is a drug. It acts as a depressant (slows down the central nervous system) and has numerous other effects on the body. Adolescents have less physical tolerance to the effects of alcohol. Adolescence is a time when the brain is still rapidly developing and it is therefore more susceptible to damage due to drinking alcohol. There are a number of other harms associated with alcohol that are more likely to occur during adolescence (see box on Alcohol-related risks in adolescence).

Over 80% of adolescents have used alcohol by the time they are 14 years of age.1  Research shows that the earlier an adolescent starts drinking, the greater the chance that they will have problems with alcohol later in life. Because of the health risks associated with drinking, the National Health and Medical Research Council has recommended that adolescents under the age of 15 do not drink any alcohol at all, and that adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 delay starting to drink for as long as possible. Any drinking by adolescents under the age of 18 should be at low risk levels, in a safe environment, and supervised by an adult (see box on Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol).

Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol

Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

Guideline 2: Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion.

Guideline 3: Children and young people under 18 years of age

A: Parents and carers should be advised that children under 15 years of age are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking and that for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.

B: For young people aged 15-17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.

Guideline 4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding

A: For women who are pregnant, not drinking is the safest option.

B: For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.

What is a standard drink?
A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, for example 100ml of wine, 30ml of spirits or 285ml of heavy beer.

Adapted from: National Health & Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: 2009


What does the law say about adolescent alcohol consumption?

There are laws in every state and territory restricting the provision of alcohol to people under the age of 18. You need to be aware of the current laws in your state. You can find information about the laws applying to your state or territory via the following link:

Why do adolescents drink alcohol?

Although it may sometimes seem like it, adolescents do not simply drink alcohol to disobey their parents. Experimentation and risk taking are a normal part of adolescent behaviour, which includes drinking. When adolescents drink, they often hide it from their parents. As your adolescent child gets older, the likelihood they will drink alcohol increases.

There are many factors that may influence an adolescent’s decision to drink:

  • Many adolescents associate alcohol use with becoming an adult
  • Drinking may be considered normal within their peer or cultural groups
  • Portrayal and marketing of alcohol in the media may encourage drinking
  • Parents’ use of and attitudes about alcohol also influence drinking

There are also a number of factors that increase the risk of an adolescent drinking heavily:

  • Experiencing emotional or psychological problems
  • Not feeling connected to family, school or community
  • Behaviour problems
  • Family history of alcohol problems

When adolescents drink, they often drink with the aim to get drunk, and are more likely to binge drink. Although binge drinking is common among Australian adolescents, any episode of binge drinking is still a cause for concern. However, a single episode of binge drinking does not necessarily mean your adolescent has an alcohol problem.

1White V, Hayman J. “Australian Secondary Students' Use of Alcohol in 2005”. Melbourne (AUST): Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Control Research Institute; 2006.