News reports state that about a third of learners in the Western Cape alone are binge drinkers with some as young as 10 classified as heavy drinkers.
The death of 11-year-old Roseline Majola in March 2008 highlighted the alarming rise of alcohol abuse in children and teens. Majola was stoned to death by her friends who were allegedly drunk at the time.
Her friends aged nine to 15 were charged with murder and four were convicted in May 2008, and sentenced in June of the same year.
The most recent statistics available in South Africa is a survey conducted in 2002. Nearly half of all South African learners had used alcohol according to the South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey.
Alcohol usage amongst boys was found to be 56.1% and amongst girls an alarming 43.5%. A further 31.8% said they had used alcohol within the past month and 23% said they had engaged in binge drinking in the month before the survey.
More shocking is that 15.8% boys and 9% girls had their first drink before the age of 13 years.
Izabelle Little, author and co-ordinator of Life Talk, an online forum for teens and parents, says we are facing an alcohol abuse crisis.
"Binge drinking is a huge issue. Every day I get hundreds of e-mails telling heartbreaking stories. Alcohol abuse is leading to tragedies that are avoidable", says Little.
Alcohol abuse in children and teens is a worldwide problem.
According to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, 90% of all underage drinking is in the form of binge drinking.
A National Health Service (NHS) report released in the UK earlier this year showed that hospital admissions linked to alcohol have increased by 50% since 1995 and prescriptions for treating alcohol addiction jumped to 20% in the past four years.
An Australian study released in February 2008 found that ten percent of 12-17 year olds engage in binge drinking in any given week. In 16 – 17-year- olds one in five binge drink on a weekly basis.
In March 2008 the Australian government embarked on a 53 million dollar campaign against binge drinking, and the UK is planning to ban drinking games, with the new rules coming into effect this year after being approved by Parliament.
What is binge drinking?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines binge drinking as the consumption of five or more drinks in one sitting or on one occasion.
Doctor Fourie, regional director of SANCA explains further, "Binge drinking is a pattern of using alcohol in which people intoxicate themselves during weekends or on special occasions."
Why do teens binge drink?
Little says, "We have a culture of drinking in South Africa and teens are a product of the society in which they live."
According to Little teens drink for a number of reasons: alcohol is freely available at parties and clubs; peer pressure – it appears to be the cool thing to do; alcohol advertising is targeted at teens; many teens are bored and alcohol provides a diversion; and some drink to escape from a broken home, poverty or abuse.
The dangers of binge drinking
"Alcohol lowers inhibitions and teens end up doing things they wouldn't normally do. Teens engage in sexual activities, increasing their chances of becoming infected with sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. Alcohol abuse increases the chances of getting mugged or sexually abused. The abuse of alcohol can also be a gateway to other drug abuse. It can leave life-long scars", says Little.
Dr Fourie explains that binge drinking is extremely unhealthy. "If your blood alcohol level is too high, it affects the brain and could lead to a coma. It also slows down your heartbeat and could be fatal if your blood alcohol level is too high."
Fourie says what makes it even more dangerous for teens are that they tend to drink mixtures of ciders, beers, spirits and wine.
"It is a high-risk drinking pattern that can lead to serious addiction and result in social problems and high-risk behaviour such as engaging in unsafe sex and drunken driving. People can't act and think rationally when they are intoxicated," says Fourie.
The silent scourge
"Parents don't know what's happening. They drop their teens at parties and even night clubs where there is no adult supervision and alcohol is free and flowing. They believe that it won't happen to their child and only find out when they are contacted by a school counsellor, or if something tragic happens," says Little.
Fourie stresses that parents should be cautious about the freedom they give their children.
Little says that society had failed teens by not giving a strong message about the dangers binge drinking holds.
"Teens don't realise how dangerous drinking is. They have the – it-won't-happen-to-me attitude. Children start drinking as young as the age of 10 and by the time they are 14, they are alcoholics.
They think they can cope with their drinking habits, but most of them are in denial of how serious it is," according to Little.
She emphasises that it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. "The government is aware of the problem and some initiatives have been set in place; however more can be done. Alcohol abuse and underage drinking are only the symptoms of underlying issues. We should start addressing the causes. Parents, schools and communities all have a role to play."
Know the signs
Little advises to look out for the following signs:
The smell of alcohol
Personality and behavioural changes
Signs of a hangover: headaches, red eyes, shivers, throwing up
Excessive and sudden use of mouthwash and breath mints
Alcohol is disappearing from your liquor cabinet
Your liquor has been watered down
Wild parties, late nights and sleepovers
The hiding of bottles in bedroom cupboards
"If you suspect your teen has a drinking problem, get help. Seek professional help. Don't try to handle it yourself," says Little.
(Leandra Engelbrecht, Health24, updated January 2010)
Alcohol at teen parties
-Dr Fourie, SANCA Regional Director
-Izabelle Little, Life Talk Forum
-Department of Social Development, National Drug Master Plan 2006-2011
-The South African National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey 2002
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/quickstats/binge_drinking.htm