Alcohol and the Young

How do young people learn about drinking?

Young people learn most from …

  • what they see and hear at home
  • friends
  • school
  • clubs
  • parents
  • the media

They are influenced by their parents’ attitudes to alcohol and how much they drink. If they see sensible drinking at home and understand the effects of alcohol, this will make a big difference to how they manage their social life.

The media often deal in fantasies. Advertising especially projects unrealistic messages about an alcoholic lifestyle all around: on buses, in the street, and in shops. The fantasy says that drinking is glamorous and that everyone does it; often the reality for young people can be throwing up, feeling sick and scared, or losing control.

A big concern for many young people is how they interact and relate to their peer group. They may feel anxiety about conflicting social messages about drinking. They may also feel pressure to fit in with a crowd or a specific group of friends

Few young people nowadays wait until they are 18 to start drinking. By the time they reach 15, more than eight out of ten have already tried alcohol. Newspaper headlines about ‘drunk hoodies’ may suggest that most young people drink regularly. In fact, the number of teenagers who drink has actually declined in recent years, but those who do drink are consuming more alcohol, more often.

While there have been official Government drinking guidelines for adults for many years, until recently there were none for under-18s and their parents. In December 2009, government advice for young people and their parents about alcohol was published by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. It stated that children should not drink before they are 15, and between 15 and 17 they should only drink when they are supervised by a parent or other responsible adult.

The guidance also emphasises the importance of parents’ influence on their children’s drinking. Attitudes to alcohol can be passed down from parent to child because children see their parents as role models.

Getting drunk with friends used to be seen as a teenage rite of passage and a way to find out about the side effects of alcohol first-hand. However, according to official figures, teenagers today are more likely to make binge-drinking a regular part of their social life.

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Facts and figures

How much do young people drink?

In England, the proportion of young people aged between 11 and 15 who reported having drunk alcohol decreased from 6-in-10 to 5-in-10 between 1988 and 2007. However, the amount they reported drinking increased from just over 6 units per week in 1994 to close to 13 units per week in 2007.

The largest increase was seen in 14-year olds, whose reported alcohol consumption rose from around 6 to just under 10 units per week.

Among 35 European countries, the UK has the third-highest proportion of 15-year olds who report having been drunk ten times or more in the past year.


Young people at risk

How a teenager copes with alcohol depends on their body size and shape, as well as what stage of puberty they have reached.

In inexperienced hands, alcohol can be very dangerous. Young people are just starting to discover the effects of alcohol so it is easy for them to inadvertently drink an amount well beyond the recommended guidelines. In many cases this will cause the slurring, staggering and sickness associated with being drunk, but the consequences can be much more severe. Statistics show that around 5,000 teenagers are admitted to hospital every year for alcohol-related reasons.

Teenagers who get drunk run other risks, too …

  • In a 2007 survey, 1-in-5 teenagers admitted to drink-driving, while 1-in-3 (32%) had been a passenger in a car with a driver who was drunk.
  • Drinking alcohol can make teenagers forget about safe-sex. Statistics show that after drinking, 11% of young people engaged in unprotected sex in 2007. 11% also claimed to regret that sexual encounter.
  • Alcohol plays a big part in antisocial behaviour, crime and violence. A Home Office survey found that 1-in-5 of 12-13 year olds and more than 1-in-4 of 14-15 year olds caused damage while drinking. 1-in-10 of 15-16 year olds said that drinking had led them to get in trouble with the police.


Drinking when young can increase the risk of developing health problems in later life. Young bodies are still growing, and alcohol can harm their development. Regular drinking may lead to cancer, liver-disease, heart-disorders and impotence in later life.

Deaths from liver-disease have risen sharply in the 25-34 age-group during the last ten years. This is believed to be a consequence of increased drinking at an earlier age. Drinking can cause problems with mental development too, as heavy drinking in adolescence may lead to learning difficulties later in life.



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