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Underage Drinking

Think boys drink more? Think again.

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Adolescent boys have historically been more likely to misuse alcohol than adolescent girls. But in recent years, the gender gap has closed. Roles are reversing - teen girls have passed teen boys in underage drinking, but by how much? Some statistics to know:

More alcohol misuse has fueled higher rates of binge drinking among adolescent girls. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or higher.” Depending on the size and age of the individual, this can happen after only three drinks for girls and three to five drinks for boys consumed in about two hours.

Adolescent girls’ alcohol intake has leaped over time: In 2009, 14 percent of girls reported past-month drinking. The number rose to 20 percent in 2019. This change represents a more than 40 percent increase over the decade, with thousands more teen girls experiencing the dangers of alcohol.

What has contributed to girls’ lead in alcohol misuse? The NIAAA explains that teen boys have slowed their alcohol consumption in recent years to a degree that teen girls haven’t. Adult women have also consumed more alcohol since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Increased alcohol consumption leading other substance-related concerns

Overall teen prescription opioid misuse has notably declined, even as recently as 2021. Yet adolescent girls have still had a larger problem with that category of substances in recent years.

A 2017 CDC study found that drug overdose deaths involving opioids showed less of a decline from 1999 to 2015 among teen girls aged 15 to 19 than boys in that age group. In 2019, the CDC further showed that adolescent girls had higher rates of current and lifetime opioid misuse than adolescent boys. The study links more prescription opioid misuse with binge drinking among students and adults alike.

What could come next: More motor vehicle crashes

Teens experience less safety on the road than other drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) share that adolescents in the U.S. experience a disproportionately high number of motor vehicle crashes and crash deaths every year.

The difference: A nearly three times higher fatal crash rate per mile driven among teens aged 16 to 19 than those aged 20 or older.

When students misuse alcohol before getting behind the wheel, their risk of injury increases. In 2019, the IIHS and the HLDI found that teen boys were more likely than teen girls to have high BACs while driving. Boys also accounted for about 2 out of every 3 crash deaths among adolescents that year.

Changes in underage drinking habits among the genders could lead to shifts in driving outcomes. As adolescent girls grow in misusing alcohol and binge drinking, they may become more vulnerable to vehicle crashes and crash deaths influenced by the substance.

As drinking trends change, so should parents’ strategies

With historically higher drinking rates among teen boys, parents may worry less about their teen girls having alcohol.

In a 2014 survey commissioned by the North Carolina ABC Commission, parents with all boys reported experiencing more concern about drinking than parents with all girls. Yet in the study, 15 percent more high school girls said it would be easy for them to get alcohol than high school boys reported.

Rising drinking rates among teen girls in more recent years show that alcohol remains available to adolescents. These increases also suggest teen girls' interest in taking advantage of available alcohol may only be growing.

To account for the trend, parents should watch for signs of alcohol misuse among their adolescent girls and boys with equal attention.

Learn how to spot the signs of teen substance misuse.

Preventing underage drinking across the gender gap

Preventing alcohol misuse among students is crucial regardless of their gender. Drinking under the age of 21 is illegal in the United States for a reason—it isn’t in the best interest of any teen.

As a parent, the NIAAA suggests you discourage your teen from engaging in underage drinking by:

  • Not making alcohol available
  • Talking about the dangers of drinking
  • Supervising all parties to make sure there is no alcohol present
  • Serving as a positive role model, among other practices

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