Underage drinkers can become addicted

Studies show people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent at some time during their life, compared with those who have their first drink at age 21 or older.1

See the research

A doctor from Yale University explains how underage drinking increases a person’s chance of becoming alcohol-dependent.

Early beginnings

When someone drinks during adolescence, it increases their risk for alcohol use disorder. Nearly four-out-of-five people in treatment for alcohol use disorder say they began drinking alcohol in adolescence, according to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics.2 That’s why preventing early drinking can be a life-changing decision.

Wiring the brain for alcohol dependence

The brain is hard-wired to reward positive actions with feelings of pleasure so that we want to repeat them.

The pleasure feelings are a feel-good brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine helps us to remember things that we enjoy by associating pleasure to the thing or activity.3

Tricking the pleasure-reward system

Alcohol can harm the brain’s ability to sense pleasure from normal, healthy things and experiences, leaving a young person feeling “flat” about activities he or she once enjoyed. Heavy drinking can negatively impact the brain’s pleasure-reward system.4 After a while, it takes more and more alcohol to create the same amount of pleasure, resulting in alcohol dependence.

Download PDF

Consequences beyond alcohol dependence

From genetics and drug abuse to families and communities, the impact of alcohol addiction can be severe.

Alcohol addiction often leads to drug addiction.

Alcohol is a gateway drug for teens.5 Research shows that:

Illegal drugs

67 percent of teens who drink before the age of 15 will go on to use illegal drugs. 6

Marijuana and cocaine

Underage drinkers are 22 times more likely to use marijuana, and 50 times more likely to use cocaine.7


Further, it is estimated that 95 percent of meth users in Utah began drinking before the age of 17.8

Genetics matter

Some people are naturally inclined to alcoholism and other addictions. Their brains react with greater intensity to the alcohol-produced dopamine rush. If a person has a relative who is an alcoholic, he or she is at much higher risk for addiction, and to be safe from alcoholism, should probably not drink at all.9

Get treatment

If your child has already started drinking underage and you suspect alcohol addiction, help is available. As a parent, stay supportive and involved. Your love and caring are so important.

Get Treatment

Healthy brains

Alcohol can interfere with healthy adolescent brain development, impacting long-term memory, learning, personality and judgement.10

Learn More


Underage drinking can be linked to poor academic performance, violence, depression, suicide and many other mental illnesses and behavioral problems.11

Learn More

Parents are the #1 reason kids don’t drink

The harms of underage drinking are real, but as a parent, you can help prevent it. All kids need their parents’ help to stay alcohol-free and protect their healthy brain.

Learn How


View More

3 Kono, Y.; Yoneda, H.; Sakai, T.; et al. Association between early-onset alcoholism and the dopamine D2 receptor gene. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics) 74(2):179–182, 1997.
4 https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-generals-report.pdf
5 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-48, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4863. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
6 “Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use,” Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, 1994; and SAMHSA “Start Talking Before They Start Drinking,” 2005.
7 http://www.columbia.edu/cu/record/archives/vol20/vol20_iss10/record2010.24.html
8 https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/WebFiles_TEDS_SR142_AgeatInit_07-10-14/TEDS-SR142-AgeatInit-2014.pdf
9 Merikangas, K. R., Stolar, M., Stevens, D. E., Goulet, J., et al., Familial transmission of substance use disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 1998. 55(11): p. 973-9 and Enoch, M. A., & Goldman, D., The genetics of alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Curr Psychiatry Rep, 2001. 3(2): p. 144-51.
10 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4669962/
11 Richter L, Pugh BS, Peters EA, Vaughan RD, Foster SE. Underage drinking: prevalence and correlates of risky drinking measures among youth aged 12-20. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2016;42(4):385–394pmid:26682472.

View Less