March 19, 2021

Alcohol and your teenage brain

teen girls talking in park

Do you know what the most widely used drug in Australia is?

Hint: it isn’t found on the black market. In fact, it might already be in your home – alcohol.

Drinking too much alcohol at any age can be harmful but drinking any amount of alcohol in your teens is riskier than you might think, because your brain is in development mode until you’re 25.1, 2

Drug Facts: Alcohol

Why alcohol and the teenage brain don’t mix

Your brain goes through major changes during your teens – developing, growing and rearranging. Once you reach your mid 20s, the speed of growth slows down significantly.1

While this intense time of brain development is great for creating fresh ideas, it also makes you especially vulnerable to chemicals that affect the brain – chemicals like alcohol.

  • Alcohol may cause long-term learning difficulties, memory problems and potentially brain damage.3, 4
  • It contributes to the three major causes of teen death: injury, homicide and suicide.5
  • Young people who start drinking before they’re 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence later on than those who begin drinking at 21.6
  • Because alcohol can increase risk-taking, it may lead to dozens of dangerous situations that wouldn’t have happened if you’d been sober.

To reduce the risks and long-term impact of alcohol on the brain, it’s recommended that you don’t drink until you’re at least 18.1

What’s so special about alcohol?

On the surface alcohol seems innocent – it’s  created when yeast eats sugar. However, its effect on humans is enormous.

It acts as a depressant – slowing down messages to the brain, heart and muscles.7

Your perceptions, movement, vision and even emotions are altered as your blood alcohol level rises.

Although it can jumpstart the pleasure centres of your brain, it comes at a cost. Too much alcohol leads to:

  • headaches
  • confusion
  • memory loss
  • nausea, vomiting
  • dehydration
  • passing out.7

From the moment alcohol enters the blood, your liver starts working to get rid of it. If you take in more than your liver can process it can lead to brain and liver damage, alcohol poisoning and even death.7

Drinking patterns have changed - over the past 10 years, 73% of 14 to 17-year-olds have not drunk alcohol.

Less common than you think

Although a few of your friends might make a big show out of drinking, the statistics tell a different story.

Drinking patterns have changed – over the past 10 years, 73% of 14 to 17-year-olds have not drunk alcohol.8 That means more of your friends aren’t drinking than are drinking. 

Despite this, the remaining underage drinkers can be loud about their habits – and persistent about getting others on board.

If some of your friends drink and you don’t want to, here are some easy ‘get out of jail free’ cards you can use:

  • It’s never a bad idea to start with a straight answer. A simple ‘No thanks’ or ‘Got anything else?’ never hurt anybody.
  • Change the subject or suggest an alternative: ‘Where’s the food?’ ‘Want to go shopping?’
  • If you know there’ll be alcohol at a party, have your response prepared: ‘I have to be up early in the morning, so better not.’
  • If you legally can drive, offer to be the designated driver. You’ll get your friends home safely and they’ll be happy you didn’t drink.
  • If all else fails blame your ‘strict’ parents – they won’t mind.

Worried about a friend or family member’s alcohol use?

Here are some of the tell-tale signs that someone may have a drinking problem:

  • unable to stop or control drinking once they start
  • feeling tired, angry, unhappy or uninterested in life
  • using mouthwash or chewing gum to hide the smell of alcohol
  • dropping grades in school.

Need help?

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s drinking, there are free information and support services available to help and they’re confidential too.  


Kids Helpline: 1800-551-800

Alcohol and Drug Information Services: 1800-250-015

Positive Choices

  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: Australian Government; 2020.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey detailed report 2016. Canberra AIHW; 2017.
  3. Bonnie RJ. Reducing underage drinking: a collective responsibility. Developments in Mental Health Law. 2004;23(1):1(5).
  4. Saunders JB, Paton A. Alcohol In The Body. British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition). 1981;283(6303):1380-1.
  5. Australian Research Council and Universities Australia. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. National Health and Medical Research Council. Canberra Commonwealth of Australia; 2020.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage Drinking 2020 [Accessed 02.03.2021]
  7. Brands. B., Sproule B, Marshman J. Drugs & Drug Abuse. 3rd ed. Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation; 1998.
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. Canberra: AIHW; 2020.

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