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Small Talks: Get the Facts on Underage Drinking

Underage drinking isn’t harmless fun. School-aged children are going through a critical period of physical and emotional growth. Kids who drink during this time can suffer real damage—exposing their developing brains, lives, and mental health to serious, even deadly, consequences. Help the kids in your life understand the risks of underage drinking by getting the facts for yourself.

Father talking with his young daughter

How kids get their hands on alcohol

For most children, underage drinking usually happens at home or a friend’s house. But how kids get alcohol can change as they grow, and often depends on their age and how accessible beer, liquor, and other beverages are where they live and hang out.

They sneak it.
Two out of three teens say it’s easy to take alcohol from home without a caregiver noticing. Unlocked liquor cabinets and beer fridges don’t help.

They buy it.
A quarter (25%) of 11th grade drinkers admit to buying alcohol from a retailer, like a gas station or grocery, liquor, or convenience store.

They ask for it.
Often, older friends, siblings, and parents supply kids with alcohol. In fact, one in four teens report that they have attended a party where kids drank in front of adults.

Know the consequences

There’s a reason the legal drinking age is 21. It’s to keep our children healthy and safe. When youth drink alcohol, they can damage and even block the development of healthy mental pathways in the brain that shape how kids feel, learn, behave, and grow. Damage like that can have lifelong physical, social, and emotional consequences.

Human head above text that says drinking can slow brain activity for weeks

Alcohol affects young people more powerfully than it does adults, and drinking before the brain and body are fully developed can have dangerous effects.

  • Underage drinking can change the way the brain develops and functions.
  • Alcohol can shut down new brain cell growth.
  • Drinking can damage the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and self-control.
  • Alcohol can alter a child’s motor skills.
  • High levels of alcohol in the body can shut down those parts of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.
  • Heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of liver disease and heart disease.
  • Heavy alcohol use can also increase the risk of seven different cancers later in life. Learn more from the Wisconsin Cancer Collaborative.

An icon of bandage above text that says kids who drink are more vulnerable to violence, injury, and unplanned sex

Underage drinking has serious consequences for a young person’s life, affecting everything from their behavior and relationships to their long-term health.

  • Fifteen percent of kids who drink have been in a car with a driver who’d been drinking alcohol.
  • There’s always a risk that substance use may lead to addiction.
  • Drinking can lead to issues at school, with friends, and with the law.
  • In the U.S., alcohol landed 147,000 underage drinkers in emergency rooms in 2021 alone.
  • Underage drinking is associated with a higher risk of physical and sexual assault.

A triangle with an exclamation point above the words underage drinking increases the risk of suicide.

As young people transition from childhood to adolescence, they experience dramatic social and emotional changes. Adding alcohol to the mix can be devastating.

  • Underage drinking often goes hand-in-hand with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Each year, about 300 young people die in alcohol-related suicides.
  • Research shows that waiting to start drinking alcohol is one of the most effective ways to prevent the development of a substance use disorder later in life.
  • Underage alcohol use is associated with youth who struggle with mental illness.

Two drinking glasses above text that says when youth drink, they usually drink more than adults do

Loosely defined as having four or five drinks in just two hours, binge drinking is especially dangerous for children.

  • Around 90% of underage drinking is binge drinking.
  • Because most underage drinking is binge drinking, young people are more likely to experience alcohol poisoning.
  • Youth don’t drink as often as adults do, but when they have access to alcohol, they usually drink more than an adult would.
  • Binge drinking lowers inhibitions at a time when young people are already eager to take risks.

Helpful resources

Start your next small talk about alcohol and its effects with confidence. Download our helpful handouts for the latest information on underage drinking.

The DHS Alcohol Use: Youth Population data dashboard shows the latest statistics on underage drinking in Wisconsin.

You can do this

Having casual conversations with the kids in your life about underage drinking is easier than you think. We can show you how to get started.

Get tips on how to talk to kids about underage drinking

Last revised September 18, 2023