Half of South African teens are affected by the serious issue of underage drinking, says NGO

Almost 50% of high school students have tried alcohol. l TEMBELA BOHLE/PEXELS

Almost 50% of high school students have tried alcohol. l TEMBELA BOHLE/PEXELS

Published Jun 14, 2024


As South Africa celebrates Youth Day on June 16, AWARE.org is focusing on the serious issue of underage drinking.

Youth Day remembers the bravery and sacrifices of young people during the 1976 Soweto Uprising and highlights the challenges today's young people face, including underage drinking.

Research shows that around 19.9% of youths have their first drink by the age of 13, showing how common underage drinking is in South Africa.

Almost 50% of high school students have tried alcohol. These numbers show the need to address this problem through awareness, education, and community involvement.

Hidden dangers of underage drinking

Underage drinking is a serious issue that affects everyone, no matter their age or drinking habits. Let's take a look at how it impacts young people.

Brain development

Research shows our brains keep developing well into our 20s. Alcohol can disrupt this process, altering both brain structure and function.

This may lead to learning or cognitive problems and make young people more vulnerable to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), especially when they start drinking early and consume alcohol heavily.

A study called "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility" highlights that underage drinking is linked to numerous negative consequences. These effects can be immediate, such as accidents and injuries from a single episode of excessive drinking.

They can also be long-term, such as poor school performance and broken relationships due to chronic alcohol abuse.

By ages 19 and 20, 70% of all young drinkers engage in heavy drinking, putting them at great risk of making poor decisions with lasting impacts. However, even light underage drinking can lead to serious issues.

Mental health and behaviour

Frequent heavy drinking among underage individuals is linked to low self-esteem, depression, and a higher likelihood of suicide attempts. It can also lead to conduct disorders, antisocial behaviour, drug and tobacco dependency and anxiety.

Risky sexual behaviour

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, young people who drink alcohol are more likely to engage in risky sexual activities.

They tend to become sexually active at earlier ages, have sex more often, and engage in unprotected sex.

Poor decision-making

Alcohol lowers inhibitions, leading young people to make poor decisions that can have significant long-term consequences.

70% of all young drinkers engage in heavy drinking. l ISABELLA MENDES/PEXELS

AWARE.org has rolled out a new programme called "No to Under 18" to educate young people on the health and social risks of drinking alcohol before 18.

In an innovative move, AWARE.org is teaming up with the popular youth TV show, “Skeem Saam”, which airs on SABC 1, to spread this vital message.

The initiative recognises that underage drinking is not just an individual issue but is shaped by societal norms and pressures. Thus, tackling it needs a united effort from parents, teachers, and policymakers.

The campaign uses the show's storyline to highlight the real-life consequences of underage drinking. Characters in “Skeem Saam” face tough decisions and challenges, reflecting the repercussions of drinking before 18.

These relatable scenarios aim to spark meaningful conversations among friends and families about the dangers of early alcohol consumption and shift risky attitudes and behaviours.

“By weaving our message into a popular television series like ‘Skeem Saam’, we can reach young people in a relatable and impactful way,” said Mokebe Thulo, head of brand for AWARE.org.

“We believe that this approach will not only raise awareness but also encourage crucial conversations about responsible behaviour between peers and within families.

“We believe that by integrating our message into platforms that resonate with the youth, we can make a significant impact on under-18s’ perceptions of harm and their agency to practise self-care by not drinking,” said Thulo.

Several key strategies have proven successful in reducing underage drinking:

Individual Interventions: Aim to change young people's attitudes towards alcohol, helping them resist peer pressure.

School Programmes: Equip students with knowledge, skills, motivation, and opportunities to avoid alcohol.

Family Interventions: Empower parents to set clear rules against drinking and improve communication with their children about alcohol.

Community Efforts: Local coalitions work together to reduce risk factors for alcohol misuse.

Policy Measures: Increase alcohol prices and maintain the legal drinking age of 21. Enforce zero-tolerance laws for underage drinking and driving.

“Youth Day is not only a time to reflect on past struggles but also to address present-day issues affecting our young people, and underage drinking is a critical one.

“If we act as the whole of society when it comes to underage drinking, the solution to this challenge to young people’s lives and futures is within our grasp.”