It is that time of the year again…the impending departure of Year 12 students from school and the associated ‘rights of passage’ that accompany this departure. In Australia, one ‘right of passage’ is referred to as ‘schoolies’ and the term itself elicits numerous discussion and debates. One of the most controversial issues centres on the consumption of alcohol and, surprisingly, whether it is okay or not for parents to purchase alcohol for their teenage children. I do not use the word ‘surprisingly’ lightly, given the obvious legal and ethical challenges with providing underage minors with alcohol. Moreover, there are also some very important health issues associated with such actions including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain and the associated risk factors inherent with teenage alcohol consumption. In order to understand how the dangerous cocktail, pun intended, associated with mixing teenagers and alcohol it is important to understand a bit about the developing brain.
The teenage years are a time of extreme vulnerability for the brain. During this time of life the brain undergoes a massive remodelling of its basic structure, in areas that affect everything from logic and language to impulses and intuition. The teenage brain is also becoming more efficient by ‘pruning’ unused synaptic connections but at the same time it is hot-wired for emotion, sensation seeking and risk taking. Importantly, the last thing to mature, and perhaps the most important part of the brain for defining who we are as a species, are the prefrontal lobes; the brain’s chief executive officer. Among numerous important functions, it is the prefrontal lobes that allow us to make responsible decisions and regulate our emotions and this area of the brain does not fully mature until we are well into our twenties (some researchers believe longer for males)! It also important to remember that all of these changes are occurring in a sea of electro-chemical impulses and such changes can have a profound impact on all aspects of teenage behaviour. Risk taking is a significant player in teenage behaviour and mixing alcohol with a proclivity for engaging in such behaviour is a recipe for disaster for a number of reasons.
First, one of the hallmarks of adolescent risk taking is that the bulk of such behaviour is much more likely to occur in the presence of peers. Adolescents are so attuned to their peers that studies have identified that the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure show greater activation during risk taking activities when adolescents know they are being observed by their peers. In other words, when teens get together they are more likely to do things that might make an 8 year old cringe in disbelief. This is not necessarily a bad thing…hanging out with friends, finding pleasure in sensation seeking and risk taking are necessary for survival away from a family unit and success as an adult. Adolescents need to experiment and try adult behaviours while often challenging authority; it’s called growing up! However, experimenting with alcohol is one adult behaviour to be avoided.
Second, alcohol is not good for a developing brain nor is it safe! Animal studies tell us that when supplied with alcohol, memory and many important cognitive functions are greatly impaired in the teenage brain. We also know that some of the most obvious challenges associated with teenage alcohol consumption are those associated with impaired judgement or decision-making when drinking. Adults often make poor decisions when drinking and an immature prefrontal lobe during the teenage years exacerbates this problem. This is evident in a large body of research noting that alcohol consumption increases the degree of direct harm due to injury through increased exposure to dangerous circumstances. Couple this with another important right of passage, the opportunity to drive a motor vehicle, and it should come as no surprise that alcohol is a major contributor to the three leading causes of death among teenagers – unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide.
In the end, schoolies, as a right of passage, is an important aspect of the journey into adulthood and a time to be celebrated. One must question, however, whether alcohol really needs to be part of this celebration. Moreover, providing alcohol to teenagers as part of this journey can cut the celebrations short by putting young minds and young bodies in harm’s way.
Michael C Nagel PhD
The above article includes exerts from Dr Nagel’s latest book, ‘In the Middle: The Adolescent Brain, Behaviour and Learning’, available now through The Australian Council For Educational Research