15 Shots Killed Shelby Allen
What's perhaps more shocking is that the 17-year-old drank them at a friend's house, while the parents were home. Here, how her mom is fighting to make sure no other child dies this way
A Deadly Rite of Passage
That's a hard message to get across when teen drinking persists as the great American rite of passage. Consider how it's depicted in movies: From Sixteen Candles (released in 1984) to Superbad (2007) and beyond, underage drinking has provided decades of coming-of-age-flick entertainment. Generations have giggled over buckets of popcorn as teenagers have vomited on each other, passed out, woken up in strange beds, and seduced one another's best friends, girlfriends, and even parents, only to arrive at the morning after with a hangover, some wild experiences, skyrocketing popularity, and a valuable life lesson learned to boot.
That's the Hollywood version. In real life, the results are too often tragic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 500 underage drinkers are rushed to ERs in a typical day, and about 5,000 people under 21 die annually of alcohol-related injuries - a number, experts are quick to point out, that is likely to be low because of underreporting.
There's a simple reason why underage drinkers are so likely to be injured or to die: "Kids drink to get drunk," says Frances M. Harding, director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. "They're not having a glass of wine with a meal and enjoying the conversation. They're drinking five drinks or more when they're binge drinking." The landmark College Alcohol Study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health (a 14-year endeavor involving four national surveys) found that the drinking style of many college students was "one of excess and intoxication." One in five students was a frequent binge drinker, and this group of students consumed three-quarters of the alcohol that all college students drank.
Technically defined as consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion for males and four or more drinks for females, binge drinking can have a devastating impact. "We are prosecuting teenagers who otherwise seem to be good kids for serious crimes all the time, from robberies to rape, and I have to say about 90 percent of these involve alcohol," reports Todd Spitzer, a 20-year law-enforcement veteran (he's been a police officer and a prosecutor) and former state assemblyman who authored a California law enacting tougher penalties for underage DUI offenders. "Kids just do really stupid things when they drink, because their judgment is impaired."
Experts warn that young brains simply cannot process this amount of alcohol. "The brain doesn't stop growing until the mid-20s, and one of the first regions of the brain affected by alcohol - and affected most dramatically - is the area responsible for judgment and decision-making," explains Schaider.
Although binge-drinking behavior is actually down (from 10.7 percent in 2002 to 8.8 percent in 2009 among 12- to 17-year-olds, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health), this doesn't mean parents can breathe a sigh of relief. "What concerns me most is the attitude of the parents [toward drinking]," says Daniel G. Amen, M.D., a child psychiatrist, medical director of the Amen Clinics (headquartered in Newport Beach, CA), and coauthor of Unchain Your Brain: 10 Steps to Breaking the Addictions That Steal Your Life. "There is a powerful countercultural strain, and one of the ways you see it is the tolerance of 'soft' drugs - like alcohol, prescription medications, and pot. Once you decrease the idea that a drug is dangerous, use of that drug goes up," Dr. Amen says. "If parents think these substances aren't harmful, then they should just see the brain scans. Alcohol decreases functioning and blood flow. When the brain is in this period of intense growth, development is dramatically disrupted. Kids with frequent alcohol use are, quite simply, impaired."
Yet many parents believe drinking alcohol is a relatively safe alternative to drug use, says Harding. In fact, in 2005, the Century Council Survey found that 21 percent of moms of underage girls believed it was OK for teenagers to drink under parental supervision and 20 percent said drinking was a natural part of growing up. "We have to change that outdated way of thinking," insists Schaider. "Social hosting buys into the thinking that kids are going to drink no matter what. But if we educate our kids about the permanent damage alcohol is doing, I am convinced, the kids themselves won't want to drink. If parents were educated about the recent research on drinking, they wouldn't want their kids to drink, either."