Study shows impact of early exposure to alcohol


A group of teenagers and their mothers at an outdoor gathering

Teaching young people how to 'drink responsibly' has been thought to help keep young people safe. But Australian research shows that introducing alcohol early, even small amounts, does not have the protective effect that people once thought. In fact, the study shows it can do more harm than expected.

The study

The Australian Parental Supply of Alcohol Longitudinal Study (APSALS) followed 1,910 teenagers (average age 12.9 years old) each year for 7 years from their first year of high school.

Over 7 years researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) examined the association between parental supply of alcohol (sips and full drinks) versus non-supply and the development of five different adverse outcomes: binge drinking, alcohol-related harms, symptoms of alcohol abuse and the development of dependence and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

"Parental supply of sips in one year was associated with increased risk of binge drinking and alcohol-related harms a year later, compared with no supply." Lead author and researcher, Alexandra Aiken

The final report from the APSALS showed that, compared with teens who were not supplied with alcohol by their parents, teens who were given sips of alcohol by their parents were: 

  • 85 per cent more likely to binge-drink; and 
  • 70 per cent more likely to experience alcohol related harm (injury, illness, etc.)

The research team also found that the more alcohol that was supplied, the higher the risk across all five negative health outcomes.

Harm during development

Up until the age of 25 a person's brain is still developing. During the teenage years, the adolescent brain is highly 'neuroplastic' as it organises cells and constructs and strengthens neural connections. Scientists know that early alcohol use may interrupt cell growth in the frontal lobe, and drinking at any time before, during and after brain development, can have a negative effect on the way the brain works. Check out the Respect your brain video for more on alcohol and its effect on the developing brain.

Australian guidelines

Th APSALS report backs the recent changes to the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, updated for the first time since 2009. The guidelines are evidence-based advice on the health effects of drinking alcohol developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The 2020 Guideline 2 states:

Children and people under 18 years of age 

  • To reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health, children and people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.

For more on the 'Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol' and what they mean for reducing harm, read 2020 Australian guidelines on alcohol released.

Support for parents

If you are concerned about yours or your family's relationship with alcohol or need further advice, non-judgemental and free support is always available. You can call Alcohol and Drug Information Service on 1800 250 015 or the Family Drug Support on 1300 368 186, 24 hours, 7 days a week for counselling and information.

Visit For Families for detailed information on how alcohol can affect young people, the long and short term risks, what you can do to be a good role model and how to help them deal with peer pressure and other concerns. Learn more at Young people and alcohol & other drugs.

For free and confidential advice 24/7 call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. Counsellors are available to provide information, referrals, crisis counselling and support. Or start a Web Chat with an ADIS counsellor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. ADIS can also provide up-to-date information about service availability in your area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Your Room > What's New > Study shows impact of early exposure to alcohol