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The Not-Quite-So-Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking
July 7 , 2006
Maia Szalavitz
What the New York Times, CBS News and other media failed to mention in covering new studies on teen alcohol consumption

The New York Times – followed Wednesday night by CBS news, which used the same sources right down to the same teen alcoholic author – weighed in on teen tippling this week. The scream-header filling the front page of the section was, “The Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking.”

The Times went on to describe the dire effects of alcohol on the teenage brain, citing research that finds that those who start drinking heavily at age 14 or younger have a 47 percent chance of becoming alcoholics – a risk roughly five times greater than that for the general population. It covered a number of rat studies which have found that alcohol causes specific brain damage in adolescents exposed to it and quoted a researcher who compared the new research to the discovery of the impact of drinking during pregnancy.

What it didn’t note, however, is that people who start drinking that early are different from those who don’t in a whole host of ways. For one, they are more likely to have at least one parent with alcoholism, and this itself presents a 40 percent risk of alcoholism. Secondly, they are also more likely to come from chaotic homes and have experienced child abuse or other trauma. It also didn’t mention that the vast majority of teenagers do not start drinking heavily at such a young age.

Further, both the Times and CBS ended their stories with very short mentions of data that completely undermined their thesis. The study was one of the few that looked at human adolescent alcoholics, tested while they were in treatment. It found that the teens had significant problems with attention and with spatial skills, and that the more hangovers a teen reported, the worse his performance on spatial skills tests.

However, for the 28 percent who were not drinking eight years later (since they were studied at 15 and were then still just 23, this is actually a remarkably high abstinence rate), there was only a minor reduction in attention and spatial skills compared to those of people that age who rarely drank.

In other words, even among the heaviest teen drinkers, quitting alcohol meant, their brains recovered almost completely. Given that most teen drinkers are not alcoholics, the neurology probably isn’t especially grim at all. It’s certainly not directly comparable to the damage done to fetuses by drinking during pregnancy, which is irreversible and can cause lifetime disability.

Of course, teenagers should be discouraged from drinking, and it’s clear that repeated high doses of alcohol can permanently damage the brain at any stage of life.

But this research doesn’t show that teens who drink – we’re talking about 80 percent of the population by the end of high school – are irreparably brain damaged. And while it’s unlikely that one more scare story will deter many teens from drinking, telling teen alcoholics that they’ve already permanently harmed themselves might discourage them from quitting.