Why alcohol affects teenagers differently to adults

Teenagers have greater vulnerabilities to the effects of alcohol, and this can impact them now, and as an adult. Alcohol consumption by teenagers is associated with harmful drinking behaviour as an adult and can cause permanent damage to the developing brain.

Teen’s physical immaturity (for example, smaller body size), developing brain1, and inexperience with alcohol can all contribute to them being more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol than adults.2

Animal studies have helped us to understand alcohol affects teens differently. These studies have found adolescent rats demonstrated fewer alcohol-related warning signs than adult rats did – these include poor balance and coordination, drowsiness – but more impairments in memory and learning.3 This research indicates teens may be less likely to experience the warning sides that can deter high volume and high frequency drinking that is experienced by adults.4

Adolescents can be particularly affected by blackouts. A blackout is the absence of memory following a bout of intoxication with no ability to retrieve it. They are also less sensitive to alcohol’s sedating effect. This means adults may have a few drinks and then say, "OK, I've had enough. I'm going to bed”, whereas adolescents can drink a lot more before they feel sleepy so they miss a primary signal to tell them they've had enough.5

There are studies that show binge drinking can damage brain cells in the adolescent brain.6 For more information read the developing brain page.


Casey, B. J., & Caudle, K. (2013). The Teenage Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(2), 82-87. doi:10.1177/0963721413480170


Hayes, L., Smart, S., Toumbourou, J. W., & Sanson, A. (2004). Parenting influences on adolescent alcohol use. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/publications/parenting-influences-adolescent-alcohol-use.


Duke University (n.d.).Content: Alcohol Affects Adolescents and Adults Differently. Retrieved on 8 November 2018:https://sites.duke.edu/apep/module-3-alcohol-cell-suicide-and-the-adolescent-brain/content-alcohol-affects-adolescents-and-adults-differently/


Feldstein Ewing, Sakhardande, S. W., & Blakemore, S.-J. A. (2014). The effect of alcohol consumption on the adolescent brain: A systematic review of MRI and fMRI studies of alcohol-using youth. NeuroImage: Clinical, 5, 420-437. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2014.06.011


Oosthoek, S.(2016). Teen girls start drinking earlier than boys. Retrieved 8 November 2018 from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/teen-girls-start-drinking-earlier-boys

Page last updated: 25 September 2020

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