Alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain’s chemistry, causing the brain to release dopamine and serotonin. It is the drug most commonly used by people ages 12 to 20. It is also the drug most commonly associated with violence. Alcohol consumption increases the risk of being victimized and of becoming a perpetrator of criminal or violent activity. Additionally, heavy drinking can negatively affect brain development among adolescents, which means it poses a significant risk to the physical, psychological, and social well-being of both juveniles and adults.
Even before a child is born, alcohol consumption can create a propensity toward violence. Prenatal alcohol exposure, which can result in fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects, is associated with a host of behavioral and social problems, including delinquent behavior. The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome are generally experienced throughout the duration of one’s life.
Although drinking by persons younger than the age of 21 is illegal in the United States, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in this country. Irresponsible drinking can reduce self-control and the ability to process incoming information. As a consequence, drinkers may not be as adept at assessing risks as nondrinkers, which may make them more prone to engage in dangerous behavior or misread cues suggesting a situation is unsafe. The reduced physical control and inability to recognize warning signs in potentially dangerous situations can make some drinkers easy targets for perpetrators.
Males are more likely than females to be both perpetrators and victims of alcohol-related youth violence. Data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) show that adolescents who drank alcohol in the previous month were significantly more likely to have acted violently in the previous year. The data are even worse for heavy or binge drinkers. Heavy drinkers are most likely to report destroying property and threatening or physically attacking others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as consuming an average of more than two drinks per day. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming an average of more than one drink per day. Binge drinking is generally defined as having four to five drinks in a two-hour time period.
According to NHSDA data, heavy drinkers were much more likely than binge or light drinkers to report destroying property and threatening or physically attacking others. Nondrinkers are the least likely to engage in these behaviors. Violence most often occurs in and around bars. In a community sample of 18- to 30-year-olds in the United States, almost 25% of men and 12% of women had experienced violence or aggression in or around a licensed bar during the previous year. However, alcohol-influenced violent incidents occurring in people’s homes or dorm rooms are likely under-reported.
Some people use alcohol as a coping mechanism or as a way to self-medicate after experiencing trauma. Data show that approximately 70% of all victims of domestic violence have substance abuse issues, for instance.
Alcohol consumption is associated with the carrying of weapons. Youths who used illegal drugs in the year prior to participating in the NHSDA survey were three times more likely to have carried a handgun than youth who did not use drugs. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use were also associated with handgun possession, with youth being four and five times more likely, respectively, to have carried a handgun in the past year compared to their nondrinking peers.
Data from countries outside the United States show essentially the same patterns. In Israel, 11- to 16-year-olds who reported both drinking five or more drinks per occasion and having ever been drunk were twice as likely to be perpetrators of bullying, five times as likely to be injured in a fight, and six times as likely to carry weapons. In England and Wales, 18 to 24-year-old males who reported feeling very drunk at least monthly were more than twice as likely to have been involved in a fight in the previous year, and females more than four times as likely, compared to regular but nonbinge drinkers.
Many high school and college students consume alcohol prior to engaging in violent or criminal activity. This behavior is influenced by individual and societal beliefs about the effects of alcohol, which suggest it can increase one’s confidence and one’s aggression. Alcohol consumption is also more likely in social situations that are related to schools and universities, such as dances, parties, and sporting events. When drinking occurs in crowded and poorly managed venues, the risk of violence increases.
Given that violent crime is costly and is clearly associated with alcohol consumption, politicians, educators, and the general public have a vested interest in reducing under-aged or inappropriate drinking. In the United States, the costs of violent crime related to harmful alcohol use among youth were estimated at $29 billion in 1996. Research has suggested that increasing alcohol prices through higher taxation might reduce the frequency of drinking and, consequently, the chance of heavy alcohol consumption among young people. In the United States, it has been estimated that a mere 10% increase in beer prices would reduce the number of college students involved in violence by 4%.
Additionally, research in the United States has found some evidence that programs that attempt to correct misperceptions about peers’ drinking habits are effective. Called social norms campaigns, these programs address the fact that young people typically over-estimate how many of their peers are drinking and how frequently they do it.
- Butler Center for Research. (2008). Youth violence and alcohol/drug abuse. Retrieved from http://www.hazelden.org/web/public/document/bcrup_0102.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010, April 19). Alcohol and public health. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/index.htm
- The Cool Spot: The Young Teen’s Place for Info on Alcohol and Resisting Peer Pressure. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thecoolspot.gov/
- World Health Organization. (n.d.). Youth violence and alcohol. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/fs_youth.pdf