How does alcohol harm children?

Children in Ireland experience harm from alcohol in multiple ways, including:   

  • Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy (FASD)  
  • Being brought up in homes where there is problem alcohol use  
  • Exposure to risk on the streets from others who are engaged in alcohol use  
  • Being introduced to alcohol at an early age and being exposed to harmful marketing practices 


Alcohol use poses a serious risk to children and young people’s health and well-being, due largely to the fact that they are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than adults as their bodies and brains are still developing. 


Ireland is estimated to have the third highest rate of drinking in pregnancy globally and with it one of the highest estimated rates of FASD with around 6000 babies born every year with this lifelong, entirely preventable condition which has serious impacts on the child’s development, education and life course. Read more about FASD here. 


Research shows that the earlier a person starts drinking alcohol at harmful levels, the greater the risk of changing the development of the brain. This can lead to problems with memory and learning and increases the risk of having alcohol-related problems later in life. 


A study found that Irish third level students who were regular, heavy drinkers were less likely to use positive coping strategies when feeling anxious or depressed. Although, in the short-term it may seem and feel like a good idea, alcohol can increase depression and anxiety soon after its use, leaving people feeling low and unable to cope.


A national study of youth mental health found strong links between excessive drinking and suicidal behaviour. 

Drinking behaviour in young people

Every year in Ireland, approximately 50,000 children in Ireland start drinking. This can pose a serious risk to their health and well-being as alcohol is an age-restricted, toxic substance associated with a range of health conditions, diseases and injuries. 


Starting to drink alcohol as a child, which is the norm rather than the exception in Ireland, is more likely to lead to heavy episodic drinking and is a known risk factor for later dependency. 


In Ireland, alcohol use appears to have been declining among young people aged 15–24 years since the mid-2000s. However, an in-depth research paper carried out by the HRB into youth drinking concluded that when smaller age groups are examined, it appears that this overall decline is being driven by younger adolescents, particularly those less than 17 years.


While it is indisputable that young people are delaying alcohol initiation, what appears to be happening is that once they do start drinking (on average at 16.6 years), hazardous drinking, including binge drinking, is commonplace. The study notes: it is important that public health actors do not get complacent and continue to pursue best practices when it comes to delaying and preventing alcohol use among young people. 


Further evidence about youth drinking in Ireland could be found in the Planet Youth surveys from the west of Ireland, the My World survey and the Growing up in Ireland study. 


Alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products with the annual spend on alcohol marketing conservatively estimated at €115m in Ireland alone. That’s why the role of alcohol marketing in encouraging, normalising and glamourising alcohol consumption among young people cannot be underestimated as a contributing factor to high levels of drinking. The international literature is clear – the greater the level of exposure to, or engagement with, alcohol marketing, the more likely young people are to drink alcohol. 


Read more here about alcohol marketing and young people 

Growing up with problem alcohol use in the home

Growing up in a home with parental problem alcohol use has been recognised internationally as an adverse childhood experience for over 20 years, and the physical and mental consequences of this issue have also been studied.  


In Ireland, at least 1 in 6 young people suffer the unnecessary impact of alcohol-related harms at home. Therefore, it is likely that today more than 200,000 children in Ireland are living with the traumatic circumstances of a childhood where parental problem alcohol use (PPAU) is a frequent event. It is further estimated that there are around 1,000,000 in Ireland today who are adult children from alcohol-impacted families. This means that approximately 1.2 million people across all age ranges in Ireland may be suffering because of the impact of alcohol harm in their family.  


Silent Voices, an initiative of Alcohol Action Ireland, seeks to highlight the harm caused by PPAU and its impact across the lifespan.  


Read more about the Silent Voices campaign here