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A Look Behind the Numbers

Differences Among Age Groups

Ages 12-15

Gender Prevalence Population Kids with serious alcohol problems
Male 3% 500 15 boys
Female 3% 500 15 girls

Though fewer in number, young people with serious alcohol problems in this age group face the greatest difficulties. While only 20 percent of their peers report ever having been drunk by the time they reach Grade 8,1 these young people already need treatment.

Their lack of physical, intellectual and emotional maturity makes them far more vulnerable to the negative consequences of drinking than older teenagers, even those who also have serious alcohol problems. As a result, they are four times more likely than young people with serious Alcohol Problems in the 16- 17-year-old age group and five times more likely than those in the 18- 20-year-old age group to be involved in a fight serious enough to require emergency medical attention.

Although external indications of a serious alcohol problem may be evident at this age - such as getting into a fight or coming into contact with the juvenile justice system - diagnosis of an alcohol problem according to the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for adults may be more difficult to make here because people in these age group, especially at the younger end, share more characteristics with children.

Ages 16-17

Gender Prevalence Population Kids with serious alcohol problems
Male 10% 500 50 boys
Female 9% 500 45 girls


Alcohol use is common among this age group: 35 percent of 10th graders say they have had a drink in the past month.2 Since drinking is so widespread, serious alcohol problems may be more easily overlooked as youthful experimentation or as a normal part of growing up.

With greater numbers of young people in this age group old enough to drive, more than twice as many with serious alcohol problems have driven under the influence of alcohol or other drugs than those with serious alcohol problems in the 12-15 year-old age group.

Ages 18-20

Gender Prevalence Population Kids with serious alcohol problems
Male 10% 500 50 boys
Female 9% 500 45 girls

Several factors help explain why such a high percentage of young people in this age group have serious alcohol problems. Firstly, many more of them are drinking. By the time they are seniors in high school, three out of four young people have begun to experiment with alcohol and 58 percent report they have been drunk at least once in their lives.3 The greatest increase in alcohol consumption among young women occurs as they are making the transition from high school to college.4

Secondly, serious alcohol problems, which usually take a year or two to develop after a person first begins drinking, have had a longer period to incubate, thus facilitating their diagnosis. The American Psychological Association criteria for alcohol problems is also more relevant to this older age group.

Thirdly, there are more opportunities and greater social tolerance for young people in this age group to drink in ways that can result in serious alcohol problems, particularly among college students, many of whom are away from home for the first time. They consume greater quantities of alcohol on a single occasion: 40 percent say that they binge on alcohol (for young men this means drinking five or more drinks in a row; for young women, four or more drinks in a row).5 The amount and frequency of their consumption increases their risk for developing a serious alcohol problem.


1 Institute for Social Research. 2003. Monitoring the Future Survey . University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.

2 Institute for Social Research.

3 Institute for Social Research.

4 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. 2003 . The Formative Years: Pathways to Substance Abuse Among Girls and Young Women Ages 8-22.

5 Harvard School of Public Health. 1999 College Alcohol Survey.