independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Alcohol, children and young people


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.

Alcohol affects the developing adolescent brain in a different way to the adult brain. During adolescence, alcohol use can damage two key parts of the brain: the area responsible for logic, reasoning, self-regulation and judgement, as well as affecting an area of the brain related to learning and memory.[1]

Research also 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.[2]

While research tells us alcohol can damage the developing brain it is not clear how much alcohol it takes to do this. For these reasons, it is recommended that for under 18s no alcohol is the safest choice and that they delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.

Additionally, there has been a considerable increase in alcoholic liver disease (ALD) among younger age groups. Among 15 to 34-years-olds, the rate of ALD discharges from hospitals increased by 275% between 1995 and 2009, while for the 35 to 49 age group the rate increased by 227%. These increases suggest that the effects of the large increases in alcohol consumption that occurred up to 2003 are being seen in our health services.[3]


Wellbeing: Alcohol consumption in adolescents can have negative effects on family, social, and academic life.[4] People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who start at age 20 or older.[5]

Alcohol is often used to change a mood or mental state, or to help cope with stressful situations. It is also used to self-medicate, and to relieve feelings of anxiety and depression.[6] By using alcohol in this way a young person can pass up the learning opportunities to acquire helpful coping and social skills.

One recent 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.[7] 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.

Although many factors are involved in suicide, the link between alcohol use and suicide has been well established. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Irish men aged 15-24 years with more than one in three deaths in that age group occurring as a result of suicide. A national study of youth mental health found strong links between excessive drinking and suicidal behaviour.[8] The same study provided clear evidence that excessive drinking is associated with poor mental health and well-being.[9]


For more information on alcohol’s impact on a young person’s mental health and development, visit


Drinking behaviour in young people

Every year in Ireland, 60,000 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.

Research on young people’s drinking behaviour in Ireland suggests that there is a clear pattern of drinking ’initiation’ in Ireland with risky binge drinking behaviour starting in adolescence and continuing into early adulthood. This pattern can be seen in a range of data collected about Irish young people and their drinking. For example:

According to the Health Research Board’s National Alcohol Diary Survey (2014):

  • Almost two-thirds (63.9%) of males and half (51.4%) of females started drinking alcohol before the age of 18 years.
  • Almost two thirds (64.3%) of 18 to 24-year-old drinkers who participated in the survey consumed six or more standard drinks on a typical drinking session.
  • Among 18 to 24-year-olds, 28% of young men and 22% of young women consume their low-risk weekly guidelines in just one sitting.
  • Monthly binge drinking most common among the 18 to 24-year-old age group (at 60%).
  • Harmful drinking is highest among the 18 to 24-year-old age group (at 75%).
  • Dependent drinking is highest among the 18 to 24-year-old age group (at 15%).
  • Beer was the most common type of alcohol consumed by men of all age groups (76.7%). Spirits were the most common type of alcohol consumed by young women aged 18 to 24 (59.9%). Cider was consumed by more than one-in-five young adults (22.5%).


Further and more recent evidence that young people in Ireland are drinking in large quantities includes the Planet Youth surveys[10] from the west of Ireland, My World survey[11] and Growing up in Ireland. [12]

Planet youth survey data (from Roscommon, Mayo and Galway) shows almost half of 15 and 16 year olds were drunk more than once in their lifetime.[13]


My World Survey data, which examined alcohol behaviour amongst adolescents, clearly highlights the progressive slide of young people into early drinking and familiarity with alcohol as they progress through secondary education. The data highlights the speed at which Ireland’s alcohol industry captures adolescents with 8% having drank in first year of school rising to 87% by Leaving Cert year.


Similarly, recent Growing up in Ireland data found that young people aged 20 in 2018/2019 had almost all tried alcohol and 93% drank. Almost one-quarter drank alcohol at least twice per week, 22% had tried to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink, 3% had tried to give up.


Furthermore, the most recent Health Behaviour in School-aged Children – the HBSC collects data every four years on 11-, 13- and 15-year-old boys’ and girls’ health and well-being, social environments and health behaviours – once again demonstrates the nation’s crisis with alcohol.

While the research showed a modest increase in the number of school aged children who have never drank alcohol across all social classes, amongst 15-17 year old girls alone within the high and middle social class groups, the 2018 data illustrates a 9% increase from the 2014 survey, who drank in the last 30 days.

Amongst children – 10 to 17 years old – who had an alcohol drink in the last 30 days, AAI believe that by co-relating the HBSC 2018 data with CSO population figures, that over 87,000 children – a bigger attendance than a packed Croke Park – have drank within the last month.

The study also highlights that the principal sources of alcohol for these children is their parent/guardian (34%), a friend (30%) or a pub/bar/disco (17%).


To read our policy focus on a childhood free from alcohol see here




[2] Witt E. (2010) Research on alcohol and adolescent brain development: opportunities and future directions. Alcohol 2010; 4(1):119-124.

[3] Grant et al (1997) cited in Mongan et al (2007) Health Related Consequences of Problem Alcohol Use. Overview 6. Dublin: Health Research Board.

[4] Jennison, K. M. (2004). The short-term effects and unintended long-term consequences of binge drinking in college: a 10-year follow-up study. Am. J. Drug Alcohol Abuse 30, 659–684. Heffernan, T., Clark, R., Bartholomew, J., Ling, J., and Stephens, S. (2010). Does binge drinking in teenagers affect their everyday prospective memory? Drug Alcohol Depend. 109, 73–78; Alcohol Binge Drinking and Executive Functioning during Adolescent Brain Development; White, A., and Hingson, R. (2014). The burden of alcohol use: excessive alcohol consumption and related consequences among college students. Alcohol Res. 35, 201–218; Jacobus, J., and Tapert, S. F. (2013). Neurotoxic effects of alcohol in adolescence. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol. 9, 703–721.

[5] Mongan et al (2011) Can Ireland’s Increased Rate of Alcoholic Liver Disease Morbidity and Mortality be Explained by Per Capita Alcohol Consumption? Alcohol and Alcoholism.

[6] Mental Health Foundation (2006) Cheers? Understanding the Relationship Between Alcohol and Mental Health

[7] Hope, Dring & Dring (2005) CLAN (College Lifestyle and Attitudinal National) Survey. Health Promotion Unit, Department Health and Children

[8] Dooley, B. & Fitzgerald, A. (2012) My World Survey: National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. Headstrong

[9] Dooley, B. & Fitzgerald, A. (2012) My World Survey: National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. Headstrong




[13] 45% of young people in Mayo, 48% in Roscommon, 47% in Galway reported being drunk more than once in their lifetime.