How many of you have had a sip of alcohol? How many of you had your first drop before midnight on the date of your twenty-first birthday? The numbers are staggering. In the United States, people aged 11-20 account for a documented 11% of all alcohol consumption (1). As an incoming freshman this semester, I thought that this statistic would be less self-evident than it was. The truth of the matter is that too many college students make the poor decision of drinking before they are legally allowed to, and it hurts them more than they think that it does. You know you are not supposed to consume alcohol before the age of 21. I know that I am not supposed to consume alcohol before the age of 21. Everyone in the United States of America knows that they are not supposed to consume alcohol before the age of 21. Yet, most people underage drink. I will not name names, but I have friends and acquaintances that I know to be drinkers. While I applaud their ability to make what they call an “adult decision,” I worry about the choices that they make on a daily basis and how it will affect not only their day-to-day functionality, but their futures as well.
As a psychology major, I am fascinated with neurology- or the study of the brain. What is interesting, in addition to absolutely horrifying, is the effect that alcohol has on the adolescent mind. The brain is not fully developed until approximately the age of 25, and the last piece of the noggin to become fully developed is the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for higher-level cognitive functions, such as thinking and planning. However, alcohol’s effect makes itself most prevalent in this area of the brain, impairing a teenager’s ability to make good decisions quickly. It also affects the memory of an alcohol-user’s brain- those who drink underage have a harder time remembering things than those who do not drink (2). The worst thing is, those who utilize alcohol underage have a greater chance of abusing alcohol later in life (2). The more a person drinks now, the more he or she will probably drink later.
But you might be saying, Becca–if I can go fight a war, why can I not drink? You are right, there is something historically screwed up about the draft. However, a person cannot own a gun, gamble, or adopt children until the age of 21, rent a vehicle until 25, or be the President of the United States until 35 (3). Just because a person is legally an adult does not mean he or she has access to everything. Age is just a number, physical development of the brain is another thing.
What does this have to do with anything? College is a period of time when, for numerous and illegitimate reasons, teenagers like to go out, get drunk, and have a good time. This is dangerous. According to College Board, the average tuition of college for 2016-2017 was $24,610 for in-state public universities and $49,320 for private universities (4). Even with financial aid and scholarships, many people do not have access to or cannot afford furthering their education. We are blessed to be able to be at college and to delve deeper into learning about the world in which we live and expand our still-developing minds. It seems that most people throw this investment away quickly, as they adapt to drinking and the party life. Numerous studies have found that “alcohol use during adolescence affects educational attainment by decreasing the number of years of schooling and the likelihood of completing school” (5). To dumb this down a little bit more, that means that if you drink, you’re more likely to throw that investment of college down the drain because you are more likely not to graduate. Further studies cited in the article (5) have noted that there is a negative association between drinking and grade point average (GPA). This means that the more you drink, the lower your GPA is likely to be. Is some fun worth that loss? Most college students complain of being too broke to afford college, but, apparently, they have just enough money to choose to throw that investment away.
There are, of course, lots of other reasons why you should not drink before 21 (even, arguably, before the age of 25, or for some anti-alcohol people, ever) such as the deterioration of the liver, disruption in normal hormonal balance that is necessary for proper development and growth for both men and women (6), the increased risk for sexual assault, car accidents (7), and binge drinking (8). However, all of that could take me pages and pages to discuss, and most of which will be futile because you probably will still go out and drink despite what I say. My time would be better spent trying to say what I can sum up in very few words: don’t be stupid. Don’t drink alcohol until your brain is as ready for it as you are.