Self-Underestimation of Alcohol Consumption in Teens and Young Adults

As part of an effort to curb unhealthy drinking patterns and the risks of abuse and addiction, public health officials in the U.S. issue guidelines for reasonably safe alcohol consumption. Teenagers (who have no legal right to drink) and young adults ignore or abandon these guidelines fairly frequently, and thereby set themselves up for a variety of serious negative health outcomes. Current research indicates that part of the problem with alcohol consumption in this age group revolves around an inability to properly estimate what constitutes a “drink” according to generally accepted standards. This inability also reduces the usefulness of certain studies on alcohol use, which rely on accurate reporting of alcohol consumption among study participants.

Alcohol Consumption Guidelines

In the U.S., scientists, doctors and public health officials use the term “drink” to refer to any amount of an alcoholic beverage that contains 0.6 oz of pure ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol. It is this substance that produces intoxication and causes drinking-related brain and body damage, as well as the risks for abuse and addiction. Generally speaking, serving sizes of alcohol that contain 0.6 oz of ethanol are 12 oz of beer, 8 or 9 oz of malt liquor, 5 oz of wine and 1.5 oz of 80-proof distilled liquor. Specific amounts of ethanol contained in these serving sizes may vary according to the details of a given product’s manufacturing process, but the figures quoted here work well as general guidelines. Using the standard definition for a drink, public health officials have established levels of moderate daily and weekly alcohol intake that present little health risk for the average healthy adult. Adult men can typically safely consume up to two drinks per day and 14 drinks per week. Consumption above either one of these levels can damage a man’s health and/or increase his risks for abuse or addiction. This means, for example, that a man can’t safely consume four drinks on a given day, even if he drinks less than 14 total drinks in the same week. Adult women can typically safely consume up to one drink per day and seven drinks per week. As is true with men, women must follow both of these consumption guidelines in or order to adequately protect their health.

Underestimated Consumption in Teens and Young Adults

In a study published in 2012 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, a group of researchers examined the ways in which a group of several hundred teens and young adults estimate their drink sizes, then compared those estimations to the standard drink size established by doctors and public health officials. The researchers also used a seven-question interview to gauge the general level of knowledge regarding drinking safety among the study’s participants. On the issue of drink size, the authors of the study concluded that teens and young adults regularly underestimate the amount of alcohol they consume when they pour what they consider to be “one drink.” Younger teenagers, in particular, do a poor job of estimating their actual level of alcohol consumption. However, older teenagers and young adults also estimate poorly, and only come within 10 percent of a standard drink size for one out of every four drinks they pour. When it comes to general knowledge regarding drinking safety, the percentage of correct responses only reached or exceeded 50 percent on two out of the seven questions posed to the study participants.

The Need for Better Alcohol Education

The authors of the study believe their findings highlight the need for both improved and expanded education on alcohol-related issues for both teenagers and young adults. This belief is supported by the results of numerous modern studies that indicate that drinkers in this age group frequently engage in risky patterns of alcohol use, including binge drinking, a pattern of alcohol consumption that produces legal drunkenness within a period of two hours or less. The authors of the study also emphasize the fact that underestimation of alcohol consumption by teens and young adults could potentially damage the validity of any type of study that relies on self-reported estimates of alcohol consumption. If the information gathered in these types of studies is skewed by inaccurate self-reporting, then the conclusions drawn by the authors of those studies will almost certainly misreport the relative dangers of any given level of alco

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