Surprising Number of Teens Drink Alone
Roughly 70 percent of U.S. teenagers consume one alcoholic beverage or more by the time they reach their 18th birthdays, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. As a rule, teens drink less often than adults. However, while many adults keep their drinking at or below moderate, relatively safe levels, adolescents have a clear tendency to consume heavier amounts of alcohol in drinking situations. In fact, the average teen drinker consumes enough alcohol in a single session to approach the definition for binge drinking, a form of consumption that produces legal intoxication within a narrow timeframe. Serious harms linked to teen drinking include short-term mental impairment that leads to dangerous behavior, long-term mental impairment that interferes with normal brain development, sharply increased risks for accidental or intentional injuries, and death from causes such as accidents, suicides, homicides and alcohol poisoning.
Drinking by oneself is not an inherently dangerous practice, and many adults likely consume light or moderate amounts of alcohol by themselves either by choice or circumstance. However, for some individuals, solitary drinking—even if it starts with light or moderate intake—can potentially set the stage for future problems. Current evidence indicates that, as a whole, adults who regularly drink outside of a social context have a significantly higher chance of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol than adults who drink primarily in the company of others. In addition, adults who participate in solitary drinking have increased chances of developing problems with alcohol abuse or alcoholism. While the link between solitary alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm is clear, no one knows for sure how this link functions. On one hand, solo drinking may lead to the onset of problematic alcohol intake. However, on the other hand, problem drinkers may choose to drink alone more often than people unaffected by alcohol-related issues.
Frequency and Impact Among Teens
In the study published in Clinical Psychological Science, the Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh researchers used a long-term examination of 709 children between the ages of 12 and 18 to determine how many teenagers participate in solitary drinking. All of these teenagers reported using alcohol; 466 of them were enrolled in alcohol treatment programs, while the remaining 243 came from the general population. In addition to addressing the popularity of solo teen drinking, the researchers explored the link between solo teen drinking and future alcohol-related problems. To this end, all 709 study participants reported their history of such problems years later when they reached age 25.
The researchers concluded that slightly less than 39 percent of the study participants engaged in solitary drinking, either occasionally or frequently, at some point during adolescence. Compared to their peers who did not engage in solitary drinking, these individuals drank more often, consumed a larger amount of alcohol during their drinking sessions and started consuming alcohol at an earlier age. Critically, the teenagers who participated in solo drinking were also substantially more likely to have preliminary symptoms of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse or alcoholism) by the time they reached their mid-20s. The researchers asked the solitary teen drinkers why they consumed alcohol on their own; typically, the underlying motivation was a desire to escape an unpleasant emotional state or exterior situation.
The authors of the study published in Clinical Psychological Science note that the rate of teenage solitary drinking they uncovered was substantially above their expectations. Based on the explanations given for this practice, they concluded that teenagers who drink on their own commonly do so as a form of self-medication. As a rule, anyone who uses alcohol for this purpose significantly boosts his or her chances of developing serious alcohol-related mental and physical impairment. In the future, doctors and public health officials may be able to use the study’s findings as the basis for improved efforts to identify teens with increased risks for drinking-related harm.