Drinking Alone During Adolescence an Early Warning of Future Problems

Adolescents who get someone to buy them alcohol for a weekend party or who sneak around with their friends to drink are facing some increased risks. Adolescents who try alcohol before reaching age 15 have been shown to face poor health futures, with two to three times greater risk of becoming substance dependent. A new study finds that when adolescents engage in solitary drinking their risks are even greater.

The study was performed by a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. There were 709 study subjects who had been interviewed initially at the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center when they were between 12-18 years old. The youth self-reported on their alcohol consumption during the previous year. Then, at age 25, the subjects were again evaluated for potential alcohol-related problems.

The study found that 39 percent of the adolescents surveyed had engaged in non-social, solitary drinking. The study’s lead author, Kasey Creswell, said that the majority of alone drinking took place in the wake of personal conflict, such as an argument with a friend. But young people also drank alone when they felt lonely or were in a bad mood.

This means that much of the solitary drinking was used as an unhealthy means of handling negative emotion. Teens who self-medicated with alcohol all by themselves were found to have a one and one half times greater risk of becoming alcohol-dependent by the time they reached 25 years of age. Solitary adolescent drinkers wind up in a high risk category for drinking more, drinking more often and having a greater chance of addiction as an adult.

Other studies have compared solitary drinkers to social drinkers in terms of how much is consumed and how often. This study is the first to look at the outcomes for youth who drink alone, showing that adolescent alone-drinkers drink more and do so more often. But they also face greater substance use risks down the road, even after the researchers controlled for other potential risk factors.

The U.S. Surgeon General says that 50 percent of all 15-year-olds here have already had a drink of alcohol at least once. That is concerning. But young people who don’t know what to do with their negative emotions and choose to use alcohol as a coping mechanism even when they aren’t with friends are waving a big, bright red flag. These adolescents need some help in learning how to process those feelings in healthier ways.