A wasted generation

By Drum Digital
24 February 2015

Boozing isn’t for kids yet one in every two SA teens drinks alcohol, many of them heavily. Is your child among them?

It happened gradually. First he began staying out late with friends, then his grades dropped and he became less communicative. Eventually a relative alerted her that he had a social drinking habit. This explained her 17-year-old son’s odd disrespectful attitude toward s her, mom Nicole Reineke* says.

She discovered his indulging in alcohol started when he was 15, that he frequents clubs and gets older friends to buy alcohol for him and his mates. Nicole says while she was shocked at her discovery and is concerned for her son, she understands why it’s becoming harder for children to steer clear of drinking alcohol. “I’ve already caught my 13-year-old son drinking and the other day his friend showed up at our home with a bottle of vodka. I kicked him out and he actually swore at me!” She says this kind of thing is common in her circle of friends, all mothers of teens.

'One in two teens in the average SA household is a user of alcohol.'

“They’re either having trouble with their own kids or with their kids’ friends drinking at home, after school or at social or sports meetings. In my day when we visited friends it was all Coke and chips. Now, it’s braais, alcohol and girls!”

The statistics support her experience – one in two teens in the average SA household is a user of alcohol, according to You Decide, a campaign run by South African Breweries (SAB) and some government departments to combat teen drinking. Some believe the number could be even higher.

Up to 90 percent of high school pupils drink alcohol on a regular basis, according to alcohol.org.za, a community information website of the Addiction Action Campaign.

There are good reasons why underage drinking is illegal across the world –a teenager’s brain is still developing and alcohol can negatively impact its growth, possibly affecting them for the rest of their lives.

“No matter what they may believe, children also aren’t mature enough to deal with the effects of alcohol, to control what they do and how they interact with others when under the influence,” says Tertius Cronjé of South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca). And the consequences can be disastrous – from unprotected sex leading to HIV infection to fatal car crashes.

The numbers

  • 48 per cent of teens in a survey commissioned by YOU (29 March 2012) were 13 or 14 years old when they first experimented with alcohol and 16 per cent were 11 or 12 years old.
  • 43 per cent say they drink for fun and entertainment value. B 60 per cent of learners who drink fare poorly at school, according to You Decide.
  • Those who start drinking before age 15 are four times more susceptible to alcoholism than those who start at 20 or older.
  • 67 per cent of young drinkers go on to use other drugs.
  • The risk of teen drinkers becoming involved in violent crimeis three times that of those who don’t drink.
  • The age bar for alcohol drinkers varies around the world – it’s as low as 16 in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Italy. South Africa’s and France’s is 18 while in America you have to be 21.


  • A growing body of research shows alcohol change the way the brain works and the way it’s wired, and may have consequences reaching far beyond adolescence, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Drinking alcohol during the teen phase (13-18 years) of rapid growth and development may upset the hormonal balance needed for normal development of organs, muscles, and bones.
  • Long-term memory impairment and defective problem-solving, reasoning and comprehension ability could result.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activities, increasing their chances of becoming infected with sexually-transmitted infections or falling pregnant.
  • If teens use alcohol to feel more confident and sociable they come to depend on it for this reason.
  • Regularly consuming alcohol has been linked to physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, defective absorption of nutrients, chronic pancreatitis, alcoholic liver disease, stroke and even cancer.
  • Depression and anxiety disorder are more commonly reported by people who are alcohol-dependent.

Tell-tale signs for parents

  • Your teen is being secretive and disrespectful towards authority.
  • Missing school.
  • Not introducing new friends to parents and letting them know their whereabouts.
  • Lack of personal hygiene.
  • Losing interest in activities they were previously interested in.
  • Blackouts, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination or slurred speech.
  • Sudden and frequent use of mouthwash or chewing gum (to mask the smell) or eye drops (to clear bloodshot eyes).

When it becomes a problem

“Children are curious creatures,” Cronjé says. “They always will experiment with taboos – sex, speeding and alcohol. To a certain extent, experimentation is unavoidable. What they need to realise is that even a one-off can be life-changing –a car crash, pregnancy HIV, ruining relationships thanks to drunken arguments.” He says experimenting with alcohol has become a habit when you see the teen repeatedly using alcohol with negative consequences for their relationships.

Get practical

  • Ask your teen to help set up and agree to penalties or punishments for being caught drinking. Then stick to this agreement.
  • When your teen goes to parties always contact the parents hosting the party to ask about alcohol use and the whereabouts and safety of kids.
  • Stay awake to talk to your children when they return.
  • Agree on a time to pick up your child but also let them know you’re available to collect them any time if need be.

Teens, ask yourself.

South Africans Against Drunk Driving (SADD) offers this alcohol checklist for young people. If you answer yes to any of these questions you probably have a drinking problem.

  • Is your drinking causing you to behave in a way that embarrasses you when you think about it the next day?
  • On waking do you regret what you did the night before when you were drinking?
  • Do your morals slip when you are drunk? Does that worry you?
  • Can you “handle your drink better” or drink more than others and not look drunk? B Do you drink to relax?
  • Are your grades slipping or are you experiencing difficulties at school or university?
  • Have you tried to drink less or quit drinking and failed?
  • Do you get drunk even if you don’t want to?

Sensible drinking unit by unit

Once a teen can drink legally, these are sensible guidelines to follow, according to SADD:

  • Low-risk drinking is defined as no more than 4 units of alcohol a day for men and no more than 2 units for women, with at least 2 alcohol-free days a week.
  • One cider is 2 units
  • One beer is 1,5 to 1,7 units
  • One cocktail is 2 units
  • 500 ml draft of beer is up to 2,5 units
  • One spirit cooler is 1,2 to 1,9 units
  • 25 ml tot spirits (such as vodka, brandy, whisky, gin) is one unit
  • 75 ml wine is one unit

By Kim van Reizig

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