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Understanding the impacts of alcohol use on young people

Last updated: July 2024

Any amount of alcohol use comes with risks for anyone who chooses to drink, but the risks are even higher for young people. This is because teens and young adults continue to go through important growth and development stages and alcohol can interfere with these processes. Current guidance recommends that teens delay drinking for as long as possible. Help your teen make safe, healthy decisions around alcohol use by talking to them about what alcohol is, what it does to our bodies and the risks involved.

It is important to model responsible alcohol use. Teens may want to know what it feels like to drink alcohol, or they may be attracted to things that make them feel older despite the potential for getting themselves into trouble. Demonstrate healthy habits and attitudes towards drinking by setting a good example.

Here are facts about alcohol and ways to reduce the risk of harm for teens that choose to drink.

Alcohol is a drug

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that changes the way you feel by tapping into the brain’s communication system and influencing the way nerve cells send, receive and process information.

Alcohol is also a depressant. It slows the system down, decreasing heart rate, breathing and ability to think, move and react to things happening around you.

Alcohol is a leading cause of death and social issues in young people. Intoxication can be associated with:

  • High risks of injuries
  • Aggression and violence
  • Dating violence
  • Worsening academic performance

For more information on how alcohol affects the body, see Alcohol use.

How and where you drink matters

All alcohol use carries some risk. How much risk is involved depends on several factors:

  • More alcohol equals more risk. Drinking large amounts or drinking more often increases risk substantially
  • Younger age equals more risk. The human brain is not fully formed until well into adulthood and alcohol affects the development of young brains, especially if used regularly in large amounts
  • Places, times and activities influence risk. When, where and who you use alcohol with is important. Alcohol use can impact judgement, reaction time and decision-making, which makes some situations riskier. If you’re going to drink, make sure you’re with safe, supportive people, and avoid activities and environments that require you to be alert or think or react quickly

Helpful tips to reduce harm

You can give your teenager all the facts and explain the risks of drinking alcohol, but they may still choose to drink. Here are some tips that can help them prevent hurting themselves and others:

1. Before drinking

  • Think about why you want to drink. Is alcohol going to make things worse?
  • Eat something. Food reduces the speed at which your body absorbs alcohol
  • Know the strength of your alcohol. Look on the label for the percentage of alcohol. A small bottle can pack more punch than a larger one; it depends on the percentage of alcohol in the beverage. For example, a 341 mL bottle of 7% cooler contains more alcohol than a typical bottle of beer
  • Set limits on how much you’re going to drink and make a plan for how you will stay within them

2. While drinking

  • Keep track of your drinks. This will help you avoid drinking more than you wanted
  • Drink slowly. Alternate drinks with water or other non-alcoholic beverages to avoid drinking too much
  • Stay in the company of trusted friends. That way, you can help each other if something goes wrong. Drinking at home may be the best option

3. If going out

  • Choose drinking places with care. Things can get out of control in places where there is no adult supervision, or where it’s crowded and chaotic
  • Plan a safe way to get home before you get to your destination
  • Stick to one substance at a time. Alcohol can magnify the effects of marijuana and some other drugs, including prescription drugs, in unpredictable ways
  • Avoid getting drunk. Drinking too much puts you at risk of making bad choices that may seem fun or funny at the time but may cost you later in terms of your health, relationships, money or the law