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Youth Drinking - Risks and Effects

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quoteleft Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to more than 4,600 deaths among underage youth, in the US each year. quoteright

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Psychosocial research on adolescent drinking includes studies of personality and the impact of particular personality traits on drinking risk, expectancies (that is, the effects someone expects after drinking alcohol), and cognitive development. Although studies involving adolescents have not identified specific sets of personality traits that uniquely predict alcohol use, some traits have been shown to be associated with heavy alcohol use and alcohol use disorders. These traits include disinhibition or poor self-regulation, impulsiveness and aggression, novelty-seeking, and negative affectivity.

Externalizing behaviors in childhood and early adolescence have been found to predict alcohol use disorders in early adulthood, as have certain internalizing behaviors. The interactions among alcohol-related genes, biological development, and environment play out in the psychological processes underlying adolescent decisions to drink or to abstain from drinking.

As is true for adults, studies involving adolescents have repeatedly failed to find specific sets of personality traits that uniquely predict alcohol use. In addition, adolescence is a period of change, and personality is not as stable as it will be in adulthood. Longitudinal studies have found that externalizing behaviors in childhood and early adolescence predict alcohol use disorders in early adulthood. Negative emotionality - depression and anxiety - also have been found to predict alcohol problems. Adolescents in this case may use drinking as a coping strategy.

Expectancies about the effects of alcohol are measurable in children before they ever begin to drink. Alcohol-related expectancies influence how early a child will begin to drink and how much she or he will drink at that point. Research suggests that people who have expectancies of more positive experiences from drinking tend to drink more than others and are at highest risk for excessive drinking.

An almost universal theme whenever adolescent drinking is addressed relates to how adolescents think and make decisions about the world around them. Despite much literature suggesting that adolescents have not yet reached full maturity in their cognitive processing, when called upon to make reasoned decisions using abstract processes, they generally do as well as adults.

Differences in decision-making appear between adults and adolescents in situations that may have social or emotional overtones. Like adults, adolescents may vary their judgments based on social context, but the contexts that encourage such decision-making differ for adults and adolescents. With this in mind, adolescent thinking and decision-making may be best understood as fully developed for the purpose for which they evolved: to deal with the tremendous transitions that human’s face at this stage of life.

The goal for research is how to integrate this emerging understanding of adolescence with the need to reduce adverse outcomes. Many factors play a part in the development of adolescent drinking. Comprehensive theories on the development of adolescent drinking create a framework for understanding and testing ideas about how multiple factors interact to lead to problems with alcohol. One of the goals of underage drinking initiative is to stimulate the synthesis and testing of new and comprehensive models for adolescent drinking within a developmental framework.

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