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In Moraga, California, Twenty-Five Percent of Fifth Graders Have Tried Alcohol

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

If you’re a parent, teacher, or professional who works with youth in Contra Costa County, California, you might be interested in the current rates of adolescent substance use in cities such as Danville, San Ramon, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Moraga.

While our past articles have focused on substance use in high school students, this article discusses the alarming rate of early substance use/exposure in elementary school students.

The following information is from the California Healthy Kids Survey. This voluntary and anonymous survey is administered to every school district in California on an annual basis.

The data below show that while three-quarters of 5th graders in Moraga in 2018-2019 have never tried alcohol or drugs, a quarter have.

Use of Alcohol or Other Drugs, Lifetime 
 Grade 5 (%)
Alcohol, one or two sips22
Alcohol, a full glass3
Inhalants (to get high)4
Marijuana (smoke, vape, eat, or drink)3
None of the above75
Any of the above25

As the chart shows, 22 percent of fifth-graders have tried at least a sip of alcohol. Three percent have actually imbibed a full glass, and the same number have tried marijuana. Four percent have taken drugs (inhalants) for the purpose of getting high.

Early Alcohol Use

While these statistics seem low compared to teen substance use in Contra Costa County (more than 30% of high school seniors in the County admitted to current alcohol or drug use in 2017), they’re still concerning.

As a reminder, most fifth-graders in California are between 10 and 11 years old.

Yes, a sip or two of alcohol isn’t as bad as a full glass – and a full glass just once isn’t as bad as a full glass every week.

But early exposure to alcohol is worrisome, mainly because it sets the stage for future substance use. It also begs the question: where are these 10-year-olds getting the alcohol?

Whether it’s their parents or their friends, the fact fifth graders are getting their hands on alcohol at all is disturbing.

Teen Alchohol Use Disorder

The 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey (2019 MTF) showed that out of a total population of around thirty-two million adolescents age 12-17, more than four hundred thousand meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

That’s 173,000 teen boys and 227,000 teen girls.

In most cases, these teens don’t become addicted to alcohol the first time they have a sip. But it’s the second or third time that gets them used to it. It could lead to them wanting to drink a whole glass. And then, one glass might become two.

Before you know it, alcohol becomes normalized. Evidence shows that the earlier a teen begins drinking, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol use disorder or develop problem drinking later in life.

The California Healthy Kids survey also asked about fifth-graders’ perception of the harmfulness of alcohol use.  Here’s what they said:

  • 54% admitted that alcohol use was “a little bad”
  • 39% said alcohol use was “very bad”
  • 6% said alcohol use was “not bad” at all.

In total, that means 60% of preteens are still not convinced that alcohol is extremely damaging to their health.

Don’t Offer Alcohol to Your Child

Our position is that parents should not offer alcohol to minors – even if it’s just one or two sips. Teen substance use is very real, and the stats are frightening. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to tip the scale in favor of your child becoming one of those statistics. Besides – underage drinking is illegal and never recommended.

In a previous article on underage drinking, we wrote about how alcohol causes damage to the major organs such as the liver, heart, kidneys, and pancreas.

But alcohol is especially damaging for children and adolescents in a variety of ways. These young brains are still developing, and alcohol can damage both the physiological structure of the brain and its practical function. Research indicates that alcohol can have a negative physiological impact on the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Which means that, functionally speaking, alcohol can have a negative impact on:

  • Decision making
  • Risk assessment
  • Problem-solving
  • Memory formation
  • Movement and spatial awareness
  • Language learning
  • Impulse control
  • Overall cognitive function

That’s why, even if your child is still in elementary school, it’s never too early to start talking to them about the dangers of alcohol. Read our article here for some tips on having these types of discussions.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

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