Former presidential daughter Malia Obama received tons of flak online recently after a photo of her holding a bottle of rose went viral. Malia is 20 years old and will not turn 21, the legal age for drinking, until July 4. Regardless of being just months away from being legitimately allowed to drink alcohol, the fact that she is a semi-public figure and the daughter Barack and Michelle Obama at that sparked mixed reactions.

Underage drinking is not uncommon in the United States, with some 8.65 million Americans between the ages 12 and 20 admitting to having consumed at least one drink over a 30-day period. In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2016 survey of 270,000 people within the said age bracket, 51.7 percent of the participants were current alcohol users. The same study logged 47.8 percent as binge drinkers, or those who consumed four or more drinks on at least one day, and 11.9 percent as heavy drinkers, or those who drank four or more on five or more days. 

In Malia’s age group (18-20), 878 of the survey respondents were tagged as heavy drinkers, 3,327 were binge drinkers, and 4,979 were current drinkers. The bracketing goes younger, with the earliest group (12-13) logging three people as heavy drinkers, 26 as binge drinkers, and 113 as current drinkers.

Effect of Underage Drinking on the Young

A separate study by scientists from the University of California, San Diego said that underage drinking may have more lasting and damaging effects on the brain as the person gets older. Observing the nerve tissues of teenagers who made drinking a habit, neuroscientist Susan Tapert and her team found damage on the white matter, which can lead to a reduced attention span in males and impaired ability to understand visual information in females. 

Titled “Psychology of Addictive Behaviors,” the research looked into the behavior of kids aged 12 to 14 years old and saw that heavy drinkers did worse in memory and thinking exams than those who were non-drinkers. A difference on the negative effects also seemed to differ per gender, which girls performing poorly on tests related mathematics and engineering and boys having the disability to focus for a sustained period. The researchers noted, however, that further study is required to find out if the backslide in teens’ cognitive function is something that can be reversed.

In addition to impaired brain function, teens who drank alcohol were also found to be more prone to behavioral problems, making them less useful members of society as the habit develops with age. Other mental disorders noted among those who consumed alcohol early include major depression, ADHD and anxiety.