Teenage years are usually riddled with existential questions, critical personality changes and experimentation. While for most young adults, these rocky changes spell out a healthy rite of passage, others find themselves tottering towards dangerous choices. Varying limits of legal drinking age, unscrupulous retailers, media’s glamourisation of alcohol consumption, social sanctions and the eternal teen dream to attain that ‘cool’ badge make underage drinking a rising concern today. The ParentCircle-IMRB Nationwide Survey, 2015, reveals that 23% of children between the ages of 10-18 years admit to spending their pocket money on partying with friends at a pub.
In India, the minimum age limit for alcohol consumption varies from state to state. Apart from states like Gujarat, Manipur, etc., where alcohol is banned, the minimum age for alcohol consumption ranges from 18 to 25 years. Yet, for those youngsters who seek to indulge in drinking, access is too easy for comfort. A similar survey conducted recently by a leading industry body as part of their social initiative had revealed that 47% teens between the age of 13 and 18 consume alcohol to ‘get a high’. This is reason enough to stop and question why and how this is happening, and also to consider the dangers of not stopping underage drinking.
Why do teens drink?
The years following puberty are some of the most tumultuous. As the body undergoes drastic changes, the mind too seeks to forge new paths, pushing boundaries and exploring the bounds of emotional and intellectual metamorphosis. It is, therefore, only natural for most teens to want to experiment with lifestyles and exercise their independence. Given these factors, teens are prone to test the waters and feel curious about dabbling into rash and dangerous behaviour.
Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty says, “Alcohol is the go-to for teens primarily because it is easily available. Everywhere you see, there are sensuous messages propagated by the media through skilled advertising of drinking as being ‘cool’. Bars and lounges are lucrative, being as they are glamourous places to hang out with friends. Instead of catching up over tea or coffee, they swig a beer. They think having a drink makes them cool. They believe that it promotes conversations. There are also misgivings about alcohol aiding in stress reduction.”
Dr Anand Balan, a Chennai-based Psychiatrist, working with alcoholism and youth substance abuse says, “Alcoholism, so to speak, is quite common among teenagers within the age group of 14-18, particularly the later years. We see youngsters indulging in casual or social drinking, sometimes even binge drinking. One reason for this, of course, is the exposure to media which propagates an image of drinking as being ‘hip’. This plays on the impressionable minds of teenagers. The other reason is that children have more money in their hands today but do not know how to spend it. It could also be that they enjoy an increased level of freedom.”
The fact that both parents go to work also contributes to children taking to drinking. This is because there is higher family income, therefore, generous pocket money and less time to spend with children. The ParentCircle-IMRB Nationwide survey shows that the national average for monthly pocket money in the age group of 10-18 years comes to Rs 774. How this money is spent? Well, a good 23% of children admit to spending their pocket money partying with friends at a pub.
As parents strive to give their children a better life than they themselves had, their well-placed intentions sometimes go awry. “Another major shift we have seen over the last decade is that drinking socially has become a sanctioned societal idea. So, it is acceptable for alcohol to be served at family gatherings,” adds Dr Balan. After all, children pick up most behaviours from the adults around them. We, as a society, are so complacent about the issue of social drinking that we do not convey its dangers to the younger generation.
Dangers of underage drinking
Consumption of alcohol during the teenage years has a range of damaging consequences. The primary concern that relates to underage drinking is its effect on the developmental process of the teenage brain. “Adolescence is a time of increased neural development. The brain of a teenager has not yet attained complete maturity. Research has shown that when you compare the effects of alcohol on a teenage brain with that of an adult, the damage is infinitely higher in a teenager. Drinking directly affects the Central Nervous System (CNS),” says Dr Balan. Studies have shown that consumption of alcohol during this age might also have long-lasting effects on memory and learning skills.
Apart from the changes happening in the brain, adolescence also brings in physiological and hormonal changes. Consumption of alcohol affects the functioning of vital organs, thus disrupting physiological growth. It also disturbs the hormones that are essential for the healthy development of reproductive organs.
Alcohol consumption is also responsible for a range of behavioural problems in teenagers. “There is a noticeable impact on social relationships. Teens, who take to drinking will manifest patterns like school absenteeism, loss of concentration and focus, sullen behaviour with family and compulsive lying,” says Dr Balan. He adds, “Another disturbing aspect of initiation to alcohol at a young age is that teens who experiment with alcohol are more likely to deal with problems of addiction later in life. The reason is that exposure to alcohol is prolonged and from a nascent stage itself.”
Studies have shown that teenagers are able to consume more alcohol before experiencing its side effects (drowsiness, giddiness, nausea), than adults. As a result, they might end up consuming more than they can handle.
We all know that alcohol impairs judgement. Teens who consume alcohol are more likely to be involved in dangerous behaviour. This is evident in the shocking spike in the number of teenagers involved in cases of drunken driving, vandalism, disorderly conduct in public places and even acts of crime, during the last decade.
Law on underage drinking
In spite of the minimum legal age for drinking varying between 18 and 25 years across India, alcohol is still easily available to those well below that age. One of the critical questions to ask is, how? Narayanan Varman, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Vigilance, Chennai, says, “There is severe negligence at most liquor outlets. With most outlets teeming with customers, vendors scarcely pay attention to who is buying the alcohol. No one checks the ID before handing over the merchandise. Most of these retailers do not even issue a bill at the time of purchase. Apart from this, there are many places where liquor is sold illegally, without any licence. Such irregularities make it very hard to keep underage drinking under check.”
Unfortunately, apart from penalising and booking the vendors or establishments caught in the act of serving alcohol to those under the legal drinking age, there are no set laws in place to curb underage drinking. The issue needs to be addressed from the viewpoint of Juvenile Justice. N Z Asiammal, Superintendent of Police, Chennai says, “Even if the police were to catch juvenile delinquents, they cannot take action. It is very different from handling cases concerning adults.”
What should parents do?
What are the warning signs that parents should look out for? Dr Anand Balan advises parents to look out for behavioural shifts like school absenteeism, inability to concentrate, lying and stealing. While these might not always be signs that your child is hitting the bottle, it is no less a cause for concern.
Dr Balan also says the way to tackle the problem is by being proactive. “Parents should not wait till their children reach their teen years to start being cautious. Understandably, in most families now both parents go to work. Even so, it is essential to spend time with children. Parents should be aware of the day-to-day activities, friends and emotional needs of their children. Engaging with them in these growing years can prevent problems to a large extent. As children enter their teen years, it is important to have an atmosphere of open communication at home and to keep an eye on their interactions with peers, their use of social media and their outings. In a healthy scenario, this should be possible without parents needing to be too intrusive. Additionally, it helps to maintain a cursory connect with the school/college authorities,” he adds.
Underage drinking has been a societal issue that has long been swept under the rug. However, considering how damaging it is for these children who are on the brink of adulthood, every effort must be taken to protect teens from the tenacious tentacles of this habit.