Myths and facts - Balance

The truth about
alcohol and
young people

When it comes to alcohol and young people, it can be difficult to sort the myths from the facts. Find out more.

Most young people don't drink.

Fewer children are now drinking. More than half of all children aged 11 to 15 years have never had an alcoholic drink and nine out of 10 do not drink regularly 1. Remember, it’s healthiest and safest for children to drink nothing before the age of 18 and it’s especially important that they don’t consume alcohol at all before the age of 15 2.

Young people are more likely to drink than they were in the past

More young people are choosing not to drink alcohol than in years gone by.

Only one in 10 children aged 11-15 years drinks regularly compared to over one in four in 2001 3.

Only around one in 20 (6%) aged 16 – 17 years has been binge drinking in the previous week compared to almost one in three (30%) in 2002 4.

Giving children small amounts will
make them less curious about alcohol.

While it may sound like a sensible thing to do, all of the evidence shows it is more likely to give your child a taste for alcohol and become heavier drinkers in the future. Children who begin drinking before age 15 are more likely to become dependent on alcohol later in life 5.

Providing children with alcohol in a supervised situation
helps them to handle drinking when they’re older.

Children whose parents don’t mind them drinking are more likely to drink more regularly and a greater quantity of alcohol 6. They can be more likely to drink when you’re not around. And they are more likely to develop alcohol problems later in life.

All the evidence shows it is best to delay a child’s first drink as long as possible. Parents can discuss the issues and dangers associated with drinking and set clear rules. Children are more likely to listen to you than anyone else 7.

Nine out of 10 children aged 11 to 15 don’t drink regularly – BUT those who do are on average drinking the equivalent of nine  shots of vodka (units) a week 8.

An alcohol free childhood is the healthiest and best option. Alcohol should never be consumed by children under 15 years. But if children aged 15, 16, 17 years choose to drink this should be supervised by a parent/carer and never more than once per week and no more than three units 9.

Children who drink alcohol with their
own family are less likely to binge drink.

Children who begin drinking at a young age tend to drink more and are more likely to drink to get drunk 10.

It’s best for your child to delay drinking for as long as possible, preferably until they turn 18. Even then, they may not want to drink. More and more young adults are choosing not to drink for a range of reasons – for their health and appearance, for money, career and job prospects.

It’s OK to give kids drinks like fruity ciders and alcopops
– they’re weaker than beer, wine and spirits.

Some parents say they would never give their child spirits, and there is a myth that fruit-based drinks are less strong. The truth is they all contain the same kind of alcohol. It’s whether they drink at all and how much they drink that counts e.g.:

A standard 25ml shot of vodka = 1 unit of alcohol

440ml fruit cider (4.5% ABV) = 2 shots of vodka

275ml beer (4.8%ABV)= 1.3 shots of vodka

275ml Alcopop (5.5% ABV)= 1.5 shots of vodka

700ml (standard bottle) of spirits (40% ABV) = 28 shots of vodka

The French give their children alcohol
and they don’t have any problems.

This is a widely held view but it is simply not true. France has been reported as having one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in Europe, with alcohol the second-biggest cause for preventable deaths in France after tobacco, killing some 41,000 people each year.



Isn’t drinking a rite of passage and less harmful than other risky behaviours like smoking and drugs?

For many people alcohol is seen as a more common and “acceptable” drug and parents might look back on their own teenage experiences. But have you ever thought how your own drinking might encourage your child to ask for alcohol?

The fact is that alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK.

Children who regularly drink alcohol are more likely to get involved in risk taking behaviour such as smoking and drugs, as well as an increased risk of violence, under age sex and accidents. Alcohol is also a leading cause of poisoning, especially among younger people.

Drinking also creates a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Drinking during puberty can also change hormones in the body which can disrupt growth and puberty and it can impact upon a child’s brain development.

I drank when I was young – it won’t do them any harm

While you may feel drinking when young didn’t do you any harm, how can you be sure it won’t harm your child?

We know children who drink under the age of 15 are more likely to have problems with alcohol later in life. We know children who drink are more likely to take risks and could end up smoking, taking other illegal drugs, or having under age sex. We know that children who drink are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

The truth is we all want the best for our children and the best is a childhood free from alcohol.

It’s not against the law

BUT while it might not be technically illegal to provide your children with alcohol, most aspects of the law are very clear on preventing under 18s from drinking alcohol.

It is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 18, or for an adult to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18.

Most alcohol that children consume comes from the home – so providing it to drink in our outside of the home may be undermining important restrictions in local communities to protect children and neighbourhoods.
Do you want to be the parent who introduces alcohol to the peer group?

It’s OK if I only give them a couple

It’s tempting to think that providing a couple of drinks might take away the curiosity, but if you allow your children to drink, it’s important to think about the message this gives them about giving a green light to alcohol.

And if you do give them alcohol, how much more might they be consuming once they meet up with friends? We know that children who are given alcohol by their parents are more likely to drink outside the home too.

They won't listen to what I say

You might think what you say to your child will be viewed as hot air!

But you might be surprised how much your expectations and your boundaries matter to your child.

A survey found that nearly 9/ 10 children aged 11-15 in the North East didn’t drink if their parents asked them not to.

Some children may drink to deal with stress

One of the shocking findings of a Balance survey is that around 1 in 3 NE children who drink (36%) say they have been drinking more since the pandemic.

Like adults, children and young people might use alcohol as a coping mechanism. But as their brains are still developing, using alcohol to ‘self-medicate’ or give them confidence can lead to even greater problems.

Alcohol is linked to stress, depression and self-harming behaviour. It affects adolescents differently to adults, and can lead to risky and impulsive behaviour including self-harm and suicide.

Children who drink regularly are also more likely to become heavier drinkers as adults. It is important that young people are aware of the negative effects that alcohol can have on their mental health.

Read our free parents’ guide

Alcohol won’t affect my child’s education

No parent wants to think that alcohol will cause their child problems at school or college, but unfortunately it can have a big impact. After so much disruption to their education, it’s vital to be aware of the risks.

Alcohol can affect mood, motivation, alertness and performance at school. Regular drinking can have long term consequences, while even a night out can affect their ability to focus the next day.

A young person’s brain continues to develop until their mid-20s. The teenage years are a vital time and the younger someone starts drinking at harmful levels, the greater the risk to the developing brain.

Department for Education research [12] shows an association between drinking alcohol and a drop in exam grades. It is linked to other negative outcomes, such as falling behind, leaving full-time education, truancy and being suspended from school.

Read our free parents’ guide

All other parents give their children alcohol

Most parents of teenagers are familiar with this type of argument.

It’s understandable for parents to feel the pressure to provide alcohol to their children. Perhaps your friends don’t see an issue with it, or your children say you’re the “only one” who doesn’t.

In reality, most parents don’t give alcohol to their children and it’s likely that many will share the same concerns. When parents don’t allow their children (aged 11 – 15) to drink, 87% choose not to drink.

Despite this, among children who do drink, most of the alcohol consumed by children comes from the family home. It may be done with the best of intentions, but studies show that supplying kids with alcohol is linked to increased odds that they will binge drink as they get older.

It’s a good idea to have honest, open conversations with your own friendship group and come to an agreement about how you’ll approach tricky scenarios (e.g. teenage parties) and support each other.

Read our free parents’ guide

After the impact of the pandemic, young people should be able to drink alcohol with their friends

There’s no doubt that it’s been an incredibly hard time for young people, who haven’t been able to socialise and mix with their peers in the same way. The easing of lockdown understandably gives teenagers a release and allows them to spend much-needed time with their friends.

However, adding alcohol into the mix can be incredibly dangerous and no parents wants their child to end up drunk, taking risks or having an accident and ending up in A&E.

Covid is still an issue in local communities and people who mix in large groups while drinking or sharing drinks are increasing the risk of spread.

For children’s safety and their long term health, the longer parents can delay introducing alcohol, the better. It’s always important to know where your children are going and to find out if they will be exposed to alcohol, so you can talk openly about the risks and help them prepare for situations and stay safe.

Read our free parents’ guide

It’s safe for teenagers to drink alcohol when they reach 16

Turning 16 shouldn’t automatically give a green light to drinking. It might be what we did – but evidence is now clear that alcohol can harm young people in all sorts of ways, well beyond the age of 18.

The Chief Medical Officer’s guidance is clear that that no alcohol before 18 is the safest and best option and if children do drink alcohol, it should not be until at least the age of 15. If they do drink, after that age, any alcohol consumption should always be with the guidance of a parent or carer in a supervised environment.

There’s good reasons for the guidance:

  • Young brains continue to develop and change until they are into their mid-20s. We are all more aware than ever of how young people can be affected by mental health issues – alcohol is linked to low mood and depression and can make this worse. Even the after-effects of drinking can affect their mood, motivation and educational performance during an important time in their lives.
  • But it’s not just mental health – drinking alcohol can affect their liver, bones, hormones and even their growth. The effects of alcohol are also more extreme in children and children and each year hundreds of North East children end up in hospital due to alcohol.
  • Underage drinking can also lead to risk taking behaviour, unprotected sex, smoking or having an accident.
  • Regular drinking can also form long term habits and make our young people more likely to drink heavily in the future and to rely on alcohol during difficult times. Doctors are now seeing liver disease at a much younger age and alcohol is the leading risk factor for death amongst 15-49 year olds in the UK.

Despite it being against the law to purchase alcohol under 18, older teenagers may be more exposed to alcohol or have friends who drink regularly. It’s something that many parents of teens will face and it’s not easy.

Talking to your child about alcohol and being aware of the Chief Medical Officer guidance will help. Read our free parents’ guide

Girls are more likely to drink than boys

The most recent figures show that 14% of girls aged 11-15 had drank alcohol in the last week, compared to 9% of boys aged 11-15.

Girls are also more likely to drink wine and spirits than boys.

These are the latest figures from the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England (2018) – a major nationwide survey monitoring smoking, drinking and drug use among secondary school pupils aged 11 to 15.

Drinking alcohol can make children more likely to try other things like smoking

It’s impossible for you to stop your child from taking some risks, but children who drink risk getting into situations where other children are drinking and can expose them to other risk taking behaviours, such as cigarettes or drugs, or becoming sexually active.

It can also mean children finding themselves in unsafe situations.

Setting boundaries and having a frank conversation about alcohol alongside the other conversations they have as they grow up can help.

Read our free parents’ guide

  1. NHS Digital (2016). Smoking, drinking and drugs use among young people.
  2. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  3. NHS Digital (2016). Smoking, drinking and drugs use among young people.
  4. ScHARR, University of Sheffield (2018) Youth Drinking in Decline
  5. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  6. Balance (2016) Children and Young People’s Perceptions Survey
  7. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  8. NHS Digital (2016). Smoking, drinking and drugs use among young people.
  9. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  10. CMO for England (2009) Guidance on the consumption of alcohol by children and young people.
  11. World Health Organization (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018.
  12. Department of Education (2010) Young people’s alcohol consumption and its relationship to other outcomes and behaviour.