Teens Black Out and Don’t Care

Teens Black Out and Don’t Care

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This post was originally published on December 26, 2017.

According to a new study, teenagers drink a lot more than we think they do. While this might seem like reporting the sky is blue, this research on blackout drinking is pretty scary.

Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego Marc Schuckit and his colleagues took on the ambitious task of tracking over 1,400 British teenagers and their drinking habits. The longitudinal research, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, started tracking the teens when they were 15 and followed them until the age of 19. The result? Thirty percent of them had experienced a blackout by the age of 15, and nearly 75% by the time they reached 19. Over half reported having more than one.

Okay, you might be saying. But that’s England, a country where the drinking age is 18, teenage girls make headlines for being the second biggest drinkers in the world (second only to Denmark) and the general idea is that if you can poke your head over the pub counter, you can have a cider or two. But binge drinking is still a huge problem in the US, and the trends in this report are worth a second look.

Who are the blackout drinkers? According to this study, they’re primarily female—a result of the fact that teenage girls tend to weigh less and have less water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol. Blackout drinkers are also more likely to be those who smoke, seek out thrilling and impulsive behaviors, and hang around others who drink. While none of that is, surprising, it’s still well worth noting.

What Counts as a Blackout Anyway?

Perhaps the most confusing part of this news is getting people to agree on what exactly a blackout is. Many believe it’s when drinking has made you unconscious, but as anyone who’s woken up with, say, a strange Halloween costume on when it’s nowhere near Halloween can attest, you can be awake and perfectly alert-seeming during a blackout drunk state. Because alcohol is a depressant, boatloads of booze will shut off the part of the brain that makes long-term memories. A person might not remember what happened 15 minutes ago, or forget huge chunks of their conversations and behaviors when they wake up the next day.

This may all sound like a wacky, weird, fun experience to a thrill-seeking teen but as Duke University Psychiatry professor Scott Swartzwelder says, you’d have to be hit hard enough to be unconscious for five minutes to stop the part of the brain that encodes memory. “If recreational drugs were tools,” admits a National Institutes of Health report, “alcohol would be a sledgehammer.”

The Concern is That They Don’t See It as a Concern

Perhaps what’s most alarming about the research is Schuckit’s observation that blackouts aren’t really considered dangerous by teenagers, who seem them as a more of a funny story or a brag-worthy escapade. They don’t seem to be too worried about the short-term consequences of heavy drinking—ranging from car accidents to physical altercations to risky sexual behaviors.

While research doesn’t seem to pay too much attention to long term effects of blackouts, we do know that having a sky high blood alcohol content does a number on your memory later in life. And for an adolescent whose brain is still developing, the damage could be even worse.

So what’s a parent of a teenager to do? Sure, talking to kids about the dangers of blackouts—possibly throwing that sledgehammer analogy in there—is never a bad idea. But teens aren’t renowned for their listening-and-obeying skills. Since trauma and neglect have a major impact on drinking and drugging later in life, the best you might be able to do is provide the information out there about the dangers of blackout drinking but mostly love and support your kid with everything you’ve got.

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About Author

Dr. Kathleen Smith is an author and licensed professional counselor. A graduate of George Washington University and Harvard University, she also works as a mental health journalist. She’s written for Salon, Slate, New York Magazine, Lifehacker, Bustle, HelloGiggles and Thought Catalog. Kathleen is also a frequent contributor to professional publications such as GradPsych, Monitor on Psychology, Psychotherapy Networker, Family Therapy, and Counseling Today. Her book, The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, was published by Penguin Random House 2016.