Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Underage Alcohol Use: Summary of Developmental Processes and Mechanisms: Ages 16-20

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Underage Alcohol Use: Summary of Developmental Processes and Mechanisms: Ages 16-20

Article excerpt

The preceding articles in this journal issue have reviewed the developmental processes and mechanisms that are characteristic of childhood and early adolescence. Continuing this review, this article focuses on late adolescence--the period between ages 16 and 20--which is characterized by increasing autonomy and independence as individuals move toward adulthood. (For more information on the definitions of adulthood, see textbox "What Constitutes Adulthood?") This period is marked by significant changes in neurological and cognitive processes, behavioral and social functioning, and relational and physical contexts. It also is a time when alcohol consumption may escalate and, in many adolescents, can include binge and heavy drinking. In fact, the prevalence of onset of alcohol use disorders (AUDs) is higher in 18- to 20-year-olds than any other time across the life span.

The interrelated cognitive, biological, social, and affective changes that unfold during late adolescence interact and ultimately influence an adolescent's risk of developing alcohol-related problems. Alcohol involvement in adolescence has short- and long-term consequences on health and well-being. Problematic drinking has the potential to redirect the normative course of adolescent development in ways that increase risk not only for AUDs but also for a range of mental health and social problems. After summarizing the normative development of 16- to 20-year-olds, this article reviews the alcohol use patterns of this age-group, as well as the risk and protective processes shaping alcohol use. Finally, the consequences of adolescent alcohol use and abuse are discussed.


During late adolescence, development continues to unfold as new challenges emerge that require adaptation to the increasing responsibilities and changing circumstances of young adulthood. Changes occur both within the individual and in the adolescent's physical, relational, and social contexts, with major role transitions affecting every domain of life (Schulenberg et al. 1997).

Developmental Tasks and Transitions

The following are the key developmental tasks and transitions from ages 16 to 20:

* Taking increasing responsibility for one's daily life, behavior, and future;

* Moving toward less dependent and more mature relationships with the family of origin;

* Moving toward more mature relationships with peers;

* Obtaining a driver's license and driving, often with a graduated increase in privileges and responsibilities (e.g., learner's permit, provisional license);

* Exploring romantic and sexual relationships and beginning to date;

* Achieving the age of majority with its associated rights and privileges as well as increased accountability such as financial responsibility legal liability, and voting;

* Leaving home and living on one's own;

* Preparing for and initiating adult occupational roles (e.g., by finishing high school, pursuing postsecondary education, and/or seeking formal paid employment); and

* Cohabitation, engagement, marriage, and/or childbearing for some individuals.

Key Developmental Contexts

The period between ages 16 and 20 is characterized by major role transitions in almost every domain of fife (Schulenberg et al. 1997). However, although all youth are moving toward greater independence, the timing, sequence, and occurrence of role changes differ greatly among adolescents (Hogan and Astone 1986). Compared with earlier developmental transitions, those that occur during late adolescence are less constrained by age and reflect the greater number of options available to older youth. Therefore, individual differences become increasingly important during late adolescence.

Physical Contexts. Although virtually all younger children attend school, for older adolescents this is not the case. …

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