Teens Who Drink Alone More Likely to Develop Alcohol Problems as Young Adults

Issue Date: 
December 9, 2013

Teens who drink alone have more alcohol problems, are heavier drinkers, and are more likely to drink in response to negative emotions than their teen peers who drink only in social settings, according to a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

The study also found that solitary teenage drinkers are more likely to develop alcohol-use disorders in early adulthood.

“We’re learning that kids who drink alone tend to do so because they’re feeling lonely, are in a bad mood, or had an argument with a friend,” said lead author Kasey Creswell, who completed the research while a postdoctoral research fellow in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.

“They seem to be using alcohol to self-medicate as a way to cope with negative emotions. Importantly, this pattern of drinking places them at high risk to escalate their alcohol use and develop alcohol problems in adulthood,” added Creswell, who is now an assistant professor of psychology in Carnegie Mellon’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Previous research has shown that adolescents who drink alone consume more alcohol and drink more frequently than their social-drinking peers, and that heavier alcohol use in adolescence is associated with a greater risk of developing alcohol problems in adulthood. This study is the first to determine whether solitary drinking during teenage years influences the development of alcohol-use disorders as young adults, after controlling for other known risk factors.

For the study, the researchers first surveyed 709 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 at the Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center, asking them to report on their alcohol use in the past year. The adolescents represented youth from clinical treatment programs and the community. When the participants turned 25, they were again asked about their alcohol use and were assessed for alcohol-use disorders. The results showed that 38.8 percent of teens in the sample reported drinking alone during ages 12 to 18. This behavior was linked to unpleasant emotions, and solitary drinkers were one-and-a-half times more likely to develop alcohol dependence by age 25.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Mental Health.