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Speaking Out About Alcohol

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TOPIC: Alcohol

CONCEPT: Alcohol is the "drug of choice" for today's young people, and they are starting to drink at earlier ages than ever before. Research has shown that the earlier a young person starts using alcohol the more likely he or she is to experience serious alcohol-related and health problems later in life. Access to accurate information about the risks associated with alcohol use, and opportunities to share opinions with peers, are protective factors for teens.

OBJECTIVE: Students review facts about alcohol's effect on the developing brain and explore and share opinions about its use.

GRADE LEVEL: Middle School

Method: Individual and small group activity
Time Frame: 25 minutes plus "Post Test" and "Discussion"
Material: "Look Who's Speaking Out About Alcohol" - one for each pair of students (see link below)

ACTIVITY: Print out "Look Who's Speaking Out About Alcohol". Provide information about the effects of alcohol on the developing brain ( see information below). Follow immediately with the "Post-Test" questions to determine the extent to which students understand the information provided. Confirm answers by re-reading the corresponding text on the next page.

POST-TEST: After the information portion of the activity, ask the class:

  • What is one of the most important reasons there is a law to prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages by persons under 21 years of age?

  • Why do adults not sustain the same level of harm from alcohol as do children and adolescents?

  • How is alcohol like other psychoactive substances?

  • How is alcohol different from other psychoactive substances?

  • What, if any, piece of information about alcohol was new to you?

  • What, if any, piece of information about alcohol surprised you?

  • What is your opinion about the use of alcohol by persons under 21?

  • Has your opinion changed about the use of alcohol by people under 21?

Using the handout, instruct each student to give their opinions on the five questions (allow 10 minutes). Form triads and instruct members to share their opinions with each other (allow 15 minutes). Follow with the "Discussion."

DISCUSSION: After the small group sharing activity, facilitate a class discussion using the following questions and list the students' ideas on the board. What were some of the opinions you shared in your small groups:

  • Why are children and adolescents willing to endanger their mental and social development and break the law to use alcohol?

  • What can communities do to prevent young people from using alcohol?

  • What can parents do to protect their children from using alcohol?

  • What can young people do to protect themselves and their friends from using alcohol?

  • What did you say you were willing to do to?

  • Which question was the hardest to answer? Why?

  • Were you surprised by the opinions of your peers on any of the questions?

  • What do you think we can do as a school to stop alcohol use by students?

  • What is the first step?


We have known for decades that exposing the developing brain to alcohol can be devastating. Alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading known cause of mental retardation in newborns the United States. That is why one of the warning labels on alcoholic beverages is directed to pregnant women. We also know that the brain does not finish developing until a person is around twenty years old. The brain of people under 21 years of age is very different from people over 21 years of age... children and adolescents are not just "little adults." Think of the brain as a computer. It comes into the world with the basic operating systems, central nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, reflexes, etc. However, it does not have all its software - the programs for vision, speech, emotions, memory, abstract thinking, problem solving and attention and concentration. The brain needs input from the five senses to build these capacities. The brain not only grows bigger - from one pound at birth to three pounds at adulthood - but it continues to "program" itself for 20 years, completing the development process started before birth. During this 20-year period, the brain is creating a complete human being, who is ready to function independently. The brain is on a schedule, with each stage of development allotted a specific period of time for completion. If anything prevents the brain from accomplishing a development task on its schedule, it has to skip that task. Therefore, any substance that interferes with how the brain operates during this 20-year period of development, such as a psychoactive (mind/mood-altering) drug, can change the course of a person's physical, mental, emotional and social development.

Alcohol is like other psychoactive drugs in that it changes how the brain cells communicate with each other by interfering with neurotransmitters. If we think of the brain as a computer, alcohol and other psychoactive drugs act like computer viruses; they change, delete or scramble the code that our computer - the brain - uses to operate. However, alcohol is different from other psychoactive drugs; it deactivates and activates brain centers (speech, hearing, vision, fine movements, gross movements, learning, anger, fear, pain, pleasure, hunger, etc.) at a rate no other psychoactive drug can even approach, not cocaine, not heroine, not nicotine. For a brain that is on a schedule, turning off brain centers - even for a short while - can be devastating. Adult brains, which can still be harmed by use of psychoactive drugs including alcohol, do not sustain the same level of damage because their brains have completed development.

Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., and Wilkie Wilson, Ph.D., Buzzed: The Straight Facts Abut the Most Used and Abused Drugs (from Alcohol to Ecstasy), Duke University Medical Center, 1998.

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