Binge drinking by teens is no party

The Institute of Medicine, found that up to one in five teens has tried binge-drinking, yet only one in 100 parents think their teenaged son or daughter has done so. (AP Photo/Florida Today,Amanda Stratford)

by Rima Himelstein, M.D.

Having two of my kids headed to college this fall, I would be alarmed if their schools were on The Princeton Review’s annual list of the “best party schools”. That being said, college drinking happens everywhere, including schools that did not make the list. As parents, we need to get educated. 

We need to know that college students regularly celebrate “alcoholidays,” which are drinking festivals that are complete with costumes and relevant theme drinks. Some refer to alcohol as “liquid courage” for its ability to lower inhibitions, and may use it as an excuse for sexual behavior. And when college students drink, they often binge drink with the intention of getting drunk.

If you are a parent of a college student, you may be shaking your head in disbelief (and thinking about tearing up the tuition check for the fall semester). But the fact is, binge drinking is as much a part of many students’ college lives as pulling all-nighters before tests. Pre-teens and high schoolers are getting drunk as well. One report found binge drinking in the past 30 days by 8 percent of kids between the ages of 12 to 17 and by 30 percent between the ages of 18 to 20. Another, from the Institute of Medicine, found that up to one in five teens has tried binge-drinking, yet only one in 100 parents think their teenaged son or daughter has done so.

What is binge drinking? It is a frenzy of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) to at least 0.08 as a percentage of total blood volume. This generally equates to about five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in two hours for women. 

BAC is more than a number. A BAC of even 0.06 is associated with impairment in reasoning, visual perception and reaction time. Couple this with lowered inhibitions and we can see why there is trouble both on and off campuses. And the effects of alcohol get progressively worse: ABAC of 0.20 is associated with loss of consciousness; a BAC of 0.30 or more may result in death.

A teenager’s reality can become a nightmare:

  • Failing grades. Alcohol use is associated with a decline in academic performance. On average, college students with grades of ‘D’s or ‘F’s drink three times as much as those who earn ‘A’s.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Alcohol use lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, increasing the risk of unprotected sex.
  • Accidental injuries. Drinking alcohol raises the risk of accidents such as car crashes, falls, burns and drowning. There are about 1,700 alcohol-related deaths a year among college students.
  • Intentional injuries. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of violence towards others or themselves—including sexual assault, homicide and suicide.
  • Alcohol poisoning. A potentially fatal physical reaction to an alcohol overdose, alcohol poisoning starves the brain of oxygen and shuts down the vital functions that regulate breathing and heart rate. Symptoms are vomiting; clammy, pale or bluish skin; slow breathing; and unconsciousness.

Binge drinkers put non-drinkers at risk, too. A study found that in colleges with high binge drinking rates, non-drinkers said:

  • 34 percent were insulted by binge drinkers
  • 13 percent were assaulted by binge drinkers
  • 54 percent had to take care of a drunk student
  • 68 percent were interrupted by binge drinkers while studying
  • 26 percent of women said they were the target of unwanted sexual advances by binge drinkers

What can we as parents do?

  • If binge drinking has already become an issue, encourage children to take advantage of counselors and therapists at all school levels.
  • Start talking with pre-teens about the risks of alcohol use.
  • Don’t allow underage drinking at home or anywhere else — including at parties or at friends’ homes.
  • If you drink alcohol, drink responsibly; your kids learn from your behavior.

Preventing teen alcohol abuse starts well before your kids pack for college.

Do you suspect your child is binge drinking? How are you handling it?

Rima Himelstein, M.D., is a Crozer-Keystone Health System pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist.