Taking the first drink of alcohol at an early age could mean much more than a simple collapse under peer pressure.
In a study published in the August issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, University psychology professor Matt McGue found U.S. adolescents who drinkbefore age 15 are more likely to have other behavioral problems such as sexual disorders and violent behavior.
Previous studies have said people who drink at or before 15 are 40 percent more likely to become alcoholics, while those who do not drink until after age 20 are only 10 percent as likely.
McGue said an early age of first drink is not necessarily the cause of social disorders but an indication of future behavioral problems.
Breaking societal norms such as adolescent drinking is the key issue, he said.
He added that people who take their first drink before age 15 might not be doing so because they are alcoholics but because they want to diverge from societal rules.
McGue compared the nation’s alcoholism rates to Europe’s and found America had more alcoholics.
In Denmark, a 15-year-old can legally purchase some forms of alcohol – six years earlier than the U.S. drinking age of 21.
However, while Danish adolescents might drink as much, if not more than American youth, it is the motivation to drink that is important to McGue.
It is socially acceptable for Danish 15-year-olds to drink; in the United States it is not.
Underage drinking in the United States is illegal; thus the act of drinking could suggest a person has the capacity to resist societal norms or other laws, McGue said. But in Denmark, drinking is not a deviant behavior and does not require a person be deviant to participate.
Alison Trexler, a University medical school applicant, said she can see a difference in the behaviors of U.S. underage drinkers and their European peers.
“I think (American adolescents) get a rush from intoxication and breaking the rules,” Trexler said. “In Europe, (alcohol) is used in a different way; it’s for enjoyment and not to be abused.”
While an early age of first drink is a symptom and not necessarily a cause of social disorders, McGue said he does not support underage drinking.
“Disruption of normal adolescent development leads to alcoholism,” McGue said.
The disruption could be unrelated to the adolescent’s behavior. For example, parents’ drinking could lead to a child becoming an alcoholic, the study says.
McGue said drinking at an early age can lead to other problems such as car accidents and sexual victimization.
But McGue noted removing alcohol would not eliminate these problems.
“It isn’t very hard to prove that we have more alcohol abuse because of the rules,” Trexler said.
She said the underage drinking law is “a rule that is easy to break.”
Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]