The first time Lucy* got drunk, she was just fourteen and in ninth grade. At a party with a bunch of upperclassmen, the now eighteen-year-old from Los Angeles admits she was "trying to show off, downing drink after drink that older boys would hand me, and I got totally trashed." Before she knew it, she was a social drinker. She'd have drinks spiked with vodka before school events, at friends' beach houses over the summer, and at parties held by seniors. To Lucy, though, her behavior never struck her as being different from anyone else's in high school.
The occassional cocktail may seem harmless to teens, but new research suggests that teen drinking may pose the risk of significant damage to the developing adolescent brain. "We know from studies that adolescence is a period of extra vulnerability for the brain," explains Susan F. Tapert, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Diego. In a 2000 study, she and fellow researcher Sandra Brown found that fifteen-to-sixteen-year-olds who said they had been drunk at least 100 times performed significantly more poorly than non-drinking peers on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory.
She adds that girls appear to be especially susceptible. "Young females might be more at risk than males because they often drink at an earlier age. Hormonal fluctuations may play a factor as well," she explains. In addition, she says, teen girls who imbibe enough to get hangovers are particularly likely to go downhill relative to their non-drinking peers on tets for special functioning, like readingmaps and putting together a puzzle. "Regardless of gender," she notes, "when you're a teenager, your brain is still developing and if you're doing bad things to it early on, it might not continue to develop in a regular way."
And if you're thinking - like most teens do - that just one or two drinks can't be that dangerous, take note: Even casual drinking can be a risk. "If the drink is coming from a keg, you might have a big, full cup that's worth more than several shots of alcohol," cautions Tapert. "If teens are drinking enough to have hangovers and blackouts, which is fairly common, they're at risk for showing probles in thinking, memory, or brain health."
But it seems that this reality, while alarming, doesn't deter many girls who see drinking as an integral part of growing up. Says Rania, eighteen, from Malibu, California, "Basically, the weekend just seems to exist for people to get drunk." Adds Lily, seventeen, who sometimes drinks as often as three nights a week, "I don't plan to stop drinking, I plan to be just like my granny and have my whiskey when I want it - and my grandma drinks a whole lot of whiskey," Abby, a seventeen-year-old private school student from New York, started imbibing her sophomore year while at a Halloween party. "I think having a buzz is fun," she explains. "You can be more flirty and crazy. Honestly, alcohol just makes everyone a little more easy-going and a little less awkward."
This type of thinking should send up a red alert, says Kristen Dimeo, the program director of Teensavers, the adolescent branch of Capman House, a recovery center in Orange, California. "There's a common perception among teens that drinking is safe, and that it's a way to avoid stigmatization and build social networks," she says. "But people tend to forget that it's a gateway substance to abuse of other drugs." Alcohol consumption is also linked to high-risk behavior like impulsive decision-making, drunk driving, and lowered inhibitions, increasing the chances of unprotected sex, rape, sexual abuse, and therefore sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
In addition, the latest studies show that the younger you are when you begin to drink, the greater your risk of alcoholism. According to a survey of more than 40,000 adults published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 47 perfent of those who began drinking alcohol before the age of fourteen became alcohol-dependent at some time in their lives, compared with 9 percent of those who waited at least until age 21. But despite these convincing numbers, Abby still isn't worried about her drinking habits. "I can control myself; I know my limit," she explains. "Of course, there'salways that little voice in your head saying "watch out," but that's how I know I'm safe, because that little voice is there."
For seventeen-year-old Caitlin from New York, dealing with her mother's alcoholism has been a major deterrent from getting drunk. "I'm incredibly put off by drinking. It's not something that I see in a particularly positive light," she notes. "As much as I respect my mom, I dont' want to follow in her footsteps with alcoholism. I do have friends who drink too much on a regular basis though."
Dimeo cites preoccupation with alcohol, avoiding family outings, and increased tolerance to alcohol as three telltale signals that you or a friend are in too deep. They're signs that Daphne, an eighteen-year-old from Camarillo, California, finds all too familiar. Daphne started drinking at the age of twelve, when her mom gave her a Smirnoff Ice at a barbecue. "My mom handed it to me and said she though I was old enough," she recalls. "But my dad is a recovering alcoholic. And I knew that once I started drinking, I'd probably become addicted." Daphne soon went from drinking on weekends to drinking and using drugs daily. "I was happy to be loaded," she says. "I never though I had a problem." When she was fifteen, her father intervened. She went to rehab and has now been sober for two-and-a-half years. "It's so easy for girls to turn to alcohol because they want to fit in. I just wanted to be the happy, giggly girl with all the boys paying attention to her," she says.
Often, heavy drinking is a symptom of a greater problem, like depression or anxiety, says John Lieberman, director of operations at the Visions Adolescent Treatment Center in Malibu, California. If you suspect a friend of having an alcohol problem, the first step is to talk about it, advises Lieberman. "Young people are afraid to take a stand with their peers, but it makes a huge difference and teens can have an impact on each other." Seventeen-year-old Mally from Pasadena, California, was at a friend's house when she drank so much that she vomited and passed out. Her boyfriend - who is "straight-edge" (meaning he doesn't drink or do drugs at all) - found out about it and helped her tell her parents what had happened. "They said, 'We're proud you came to us and talked about it.' I was really relieved," says Mally. "And I realized you don't have to drink to have fun."
During Lucy's sophomore year of partying, things started to feel out of hand and she made the decision to stay sober. "I was seeing way too many people I cared about lose themselves to alcohol. I decided to be the 'mom' at parties, the person who cleaned up the puke and drove the drunk kids home." Tapert, for one, is optimistic that former teen drinkers' brains will eventually heal from alcohol-induced damage. "There are studies of adults that indicate that their brains can recover after six months. We think that will happen for adolescents, too, but truthfully, we're not totally sure and still need to conduct further research." The best conclusion is also the simplest one: It may seem tough, but stay away from alcohol until you're 21 (it's the legal age, as well as when your body is more equipped to handle alcohol). After all, your brain is a terrible thing to waste.
*Names have been changed.