As a high school teacher who frequently works with our student assistance counselor (also known as the substance abuse counselor), I am frequently reminded of the effects of the abuse of alcohol among our students.
When given the opportunity to talk about their use of alcohol, we often hear the same sorts of stories from these young men (and rarely women) that adults tell. Starting young, drinking from social pressure, drinking because of media pressure, drinking because it's illegal and wanting to seem tough, etc. During the past decade, very little surprises me when it comes to alcohol abuse among teenagers.
Judging from my past interviews, students wanting to seem older and more mature will often abuse drinking (and smoking for that matter) for two main reasons.
First, they perceive the action as being more adult-like. They want to be treated like adults, so they emulate the adults around them. However, since underage drinking is illegal, very often they do this in secret, where problems may arise. As always, making something unobtainable only makes some of us crave it all the more. Often these students can recognize that they have a problem and rarely drink to the point where they become addicted.
Second, they cannot control themselves. This is harder to explain, but basically, some people have addictive personalities that once they discover something is pleasurable, they have a very difficult time resisting it. These students generally refuse to accept that they have a problem (and since a few have no idea what addiction really means it can be a challenge just getting them on the same page) and getting them help takes a great deal of work from the student's support network.
In response to pushing the drinking age to 21, many teenagers see drinking as one of their first steps into adulthood. And many of them, since they wish to be adults, will take that first drink as soon as possible. The first drink of alcohol, in some cases, has become ritualized into something along the lines of losing one's virginity or getting one's first car.
A few years ago, NIH released a study indicating that alcohol abuse among adults was on the rise, particularly among minorities. The widespread use and abuse of alcohol among children has also been noted in many different studies. Statistics generally show that by the time a child graduates high school, there is around a 75% chance that he or she will have tried alcohol and around a 33% chance that he or she will have gotten drunk.
Is this a problem that only Americans experience? Of course not. Countries such as Mexico, which has a legal drinking age of 18, are more than willing hosts for American teenagers on spring break looking to drink legally. This does not mean that there aren't alcohol abusers in Mexico, which there are. Germany, Ireland, and Russia are all renowned for their alcohol, and the stereotype of the drunkard is common in all three cultures.
Other countries have widely differing attitudes toward their legal drinking ages. In some countries it is strictly forbidden altogether. However, in more than a few places (such as the country of Georgia) children are legally allowed to drink (but in few places may they buy alcohol).
In the United States, the legal drinking age has undergone many changes. It is, according to the Constitution, something to be decided upon by the states. However, in the 1980s, the federal government has used the power of the purse to pull all the states into line into enacting a legal drinking age of 21. Prior to this, the states had generally set drinking laws to somewhere around 19 years of age.
The federal mandate was done with the idea of lowering the death rate from drunk driving, which has gone down since then. The problem is that it has been difficult to measure the effect of lowering the drinking age since two other effects occurred around the same time. First, there was a massive media campaign to raise awareness of the problem. This campaign still exists today in the form of "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" messages that are commonplace. Second, the penalties for DWI have become much more severe and much more enforced (especially since money in fines goes directly to the community).
So, if the legal drinking age has no demonstrable meaningful effect on traffic fatalities, why does it continue? Many people are questioning the soundness of this policy.
Other organizations, such as the Underage Drinkers Against Drunk Driving take the logical stand that it's not alcohol use that is the problem, it's alcohol abuse regardless of age. An example of their stand against typical Texas Republican Kevin Brady's do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy is at the top of their page:
Now that the school year is getting ready to begin again (or it already has in other parts of the country), teenagers will be returning to school. They will be coming back to their friends, some of whom might have taken the opportunity this summer to enjoy their first beer with their other friends or family. Have you spoken with your children about the responsible use of alcohol? If not, when will you?