Alcoholism, Addiction, And Young Adults

A Macro View Of How Our Culture Promotes Intoxication, And The Impact That Has On Youth In America.

Alcoholism is rampant in young adults – this much is only too evident. With numbers on the rise, we must begin to examine the root causes. Has this always been the case, or is it a recent phenomenon?

The answers are difficult to determine, as alcohol use, and even alcohol abuse is widely accepted in many cultures and is viewed as a right-of-passage in others. Attitudes in America range from prohibition to its perception as a general lifestyle enhancement, and moderation is not often an option. This can lead to alcohol addiction in which people need to seek outpatient or inpatient rehab to detox from the physical dependency.

Environmental And Genetic Factors In Alcoholism

Many children grow up watching their parents drink to excess, and so will have a tendency to mimic the behavior in their teenage years and on into adulthood.

Those who grow up in an abstinent environment may either carry on that path or may develop a compulsion to overindulge, simply to not be like their parents. While extremes on either end of the scale are not healthy, neither can predict a child’s future tendency to abuse alcohol, and they certainly do not preclude alcoholism.

Alcoholism has long been considered to be a genetic preclusion. Children of alcoholics are far more likely to become alcoholics themselves. However, genetics may play a role in how their lives unfold, the environment is likely a better predictor.

Environmental influence and a propensity to alcoholism can stem from high-stress levels within the family unit (such as divorce, the death of a parent or sibling, or another significant stressor), peer pressure, social norms (such as in a college community environment), or through marketing campaigns aimed at attracting a younger demographic. It is the latter item that is most concerning in recent years, as there are many studies that point to the influence of advertising on young adults in terms of the products they purchase and how that shapes their behavior.

Brain Construction Under The Influence

The prefrontal lobe, where behaviors like planning and impulse control are processed, undergoes the biggest changes during the pre-adulthood and is very susceptible to the influences of outside substances. Additionally, the hippocampus, where memory retention and learning take place, is highly affected by alcohol. Of course, consuming alcohol impacts the entire brain, along with many other organs in the body, but in the developing brain these two areas are of particular concern.

Because the prefrontal lobe is still forming, teens haven’t mastered control of their impulses and decision making skills. The double whammy is that this means they’re more likely to engage in risky drinking behaviors but even more alarming is that excessive and/or frequent use of alcohol can change how this area of the brain grows and develop, hindering those same skills later in life. A teen who drinks frequently or binge drinks repeatedly may become an adult who has trouble controlling outbursts and inhibitions and who struggles with forming ideas and critical thinking.

The hippocampus governs short and long-term memory formation and helps facilitate learning. Like the prefrontal cortex, it isn’t yet fully formed in a young adult brain. Alcohol can poison the nerve cells, damaging and even destroying them, stunting the growth of the hippocampus and short-circuiting memory development. Studies have shown that adults who were heavy drinkers in adolescence have trouble recalling newly learned information and forming long-term memories.

Still, other studies have found a reduction in white matter in the brains of people who participated in binge drinking at a young age. The white matter is essential to the brain’s messaging system functioning optimally — it connects the areas of gray matter which is where information is processed. Poor connections mean the brain isn’t as efficient. And scarier yet is the fact that all research points to these changes in the brain is irreversible.

Acceptable Behavior?

For young adults in the 15-year-old range, the trend toward binge drinking and alcohol abuse is most concerning, as studies show that they are less amenable to policies around “normal” drinking behavior. This is concerning on many levels, as this group is more susceptible to impairment. The combination of extreme impairment and lack of judgment and control can be a deadly combination.

As these children mature, drinking becomes a right-of-passage. In college, for instance, nobody bats an eye at overindulgence, even if it becomes an ongoing problem. It is normalized, and in fact encouraged, by a culture that largely embraces or at least accepts a free-wheeling lifestyle in which alcohol plays a big part. The very image of college life brings to mind images of drinking parties and drunken encounters. This is supported and echoed by Hollywood’s portrayal of behavior that is “typical” of college coeds, providing a somewhat romanticized backdrop for often dangerous behavior. This promotes a culture in which violence, rape, and sometimes complete and utter humiliation can ensue, ruining what should be the most exciting time of their young lives.

The Role Of Media In Alcohol’s Image As A Lifestyle Choice

Since alcohol is a “legal” intoxicant, it is widely accepted as something that is just a part of our society. Once a young adult reaches the legal drinking age, they are allowed to purchase alcohol at bars or at retail without barriers. Wide availability is not an issue for most, as many young adults reduce their over-drinking behavior as they mature.

Alcohol Advertising Encourages Young Adults

What is most concerning, perhaps, is the advertising that surrounds drinking, and the lifestyle that it portrays. Alcohol companies advertise their products to appeal to a certain demographic and portray the “initiated” as cool, fun-loving, elegant, hip, and part of an elite group.

Celebrity Support Is Highly Influential

This is compounded by the fact that many high-profile drinks companies or brands are owned or endorsed by pop stars: Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, David Beckham, Blake Shelton, Dan Aykroyd, and Dennis Rodman are just a few of the dozens of celebrities who stand behind an alcohol brand. For a young adult of impressionable age, this is a desirable ideal to be emulated.

We’ve seen the same troubling sensibility emerge among teens who want to model their lives after rap artists who glamorize the gangster lifestyle. This often encourages troubling behavior that includes seeking out handguns and objectifying women. Ultimately, the image is not meant to scream “do what I do”, but to a young mind, it becomes an archetype – especially when things might not be so great on the home front.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that when children are exposed to ads for a specific brand, there is greater likelihood that they will drink that brand if and when they have the opportunity. The unfortunate thing is – this is not going to change anytime soon.

Research Proves That Alcohol Advertising Is Highly Influential To Young Adults

More recently, there have been studies that show that young adults who are exposed to alcohol brand advertising are actually more compelled to drink, period. This study looked at three groups of underage drinkers. Over the course of a month:

  • The first group was exposed to an average density of alcohol ads
  • The second group was exposed to a high density of alcohol ads
  • The third group was not exposed to any alcohol advertising

In the group that was not exposed to the ads at all, there was an average consumption of about 14 drinks per month. in the group that had been exposed to the ads with an average density, that number rose to 33 drinks per month. The high-density group saw the highest consumption, which on the high end of the scale rose to 200 drinks per month, though not all underage drinkers in this group reported numbers that high.

These findings are even more troubling when you consider that the average child between the ages of 11 and 14 see two or more alcohol ads per day. This factors into the conclusion that alcohol ads not only influence the choice of brand but will encourage underage drinking, period.

Add to this that there is little regulation (outside of the marketing executives themselves) to control when and where their ads are shown. They want to target an adult demographic that is going to purchase their product but don’t take into consideration that many kids are avid fans of professional sports – a market well-saturated with pro-alcohol messaging.

Misplaced Hero Worship – All The Wrong Reasons

With the great influence that celebrities wield over their younger fans, it’s no wonder that young adults identify with their lifestyle choices, including their struggles. It’s not a new phenomenon, either.

The image of the movie star, rock star, or sports celebrity who battles with addictions and alcoholism is archetypical and has swayed many a young person to delve into dangerous territory, simply so that they could experience the same things.

Whether it’s marijuana, heroin, prescription drugs, cocaine, or alcohol, it’s a compelling image to a young mind. They look at their hero (whether he or she is dead or alive) and think “that is so cool, that is so glamorous,” not realizing how tragic and ugly the end really was. They don’t see the daily struggles, the broken dreams, the heartbreak, the depression, the absolute compulsion that drives the disease. All they see is the public face, the smiles as they laugh it off, apologize for their mistakes and wage a miraculous comeback – if indeed they live to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, once they arrive at those conclusions, it’s mostly too late.

What Is The Answer?

The answer, like the stressors that urge a child to pursue a substance or alcohol addiction, can be found at home. If a child is happy, nurtured, and well-adjusted in the family unit, they will be far less likely to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

We can’t predict what’s going to happen in the context of the family unit – things happen, people change, families split – and often, children are brought into the world without much forethought. This is no fault of anybody’s, and it’s a fact of being human.

What we can do, however, is put our children first. Realize how impressionable and fragile their innocence truly is, and preserve it for as long as possible. Help them to see the world for the wonders that it holds, and not look for ways to escape what they might view as a dead-end proposition.

The things we do, the things we say, it all makes a difference. And it has little to do with social status, money, or privilege. You see families in poverty who are loving, happy, and completely devoted to each other’s well-being. You also see well-off families who barely know each other, who don’t take the time to understand what their children are feeling or experiencing out there in the world. From this, we must conclude that addiction and alcoholism don’t choose sides. It has no preference as to who you are or where you come from.

Being aware of our societal tendency to glorify its use purely for marketing purposes is just the beginning. Perhaps in the future alcohol advertising will go the way of cigarette advertising. Once enough people stand up to it, the culture surrounding it may break down. Until then, all we can do is realize that our words and our deeds really mean something to youth, and do our level best to protect them.

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