DULUTH -- When it comes to substance abuse, alcohol is teens' No. 1 drug of choice.
Underage drinkers are more likely to engage in risky behavior, including riding with an impaired driver, misusing prescription drugs, engaging in consensual sexual activity and lying to parents about their whereabouts, said Mary-Kate Murray, the youth program and training coordinator of Youth Leadership and Action, an initiative of Gwinnett United in Drug Education (GUIDE).
Nationally, 31 percent of kids who said they had been drunk in the past year had parents who believed their children to be nondrinkers.
Speaking at the Gwinnett Chamber's Education Forum on Tuesday morning, Murray said there's a simple way for parents to prevent their children from drinking: Talk to them, and start the conversation early. Most teens who drink start about age 13.
"If you're talking early, especially if you're talking about positive things, it will make a long-lasting impression," Murray said.
Murray suggested parents focus on positive outcomes, such as getting involved in activities at school or positive ways children can have fun with their friends.
Parents shouldn't underestimate the power of their values, she said. Youth say parental disapproval of underage drinking is the key reason they have chosen not to drink.
Underage drinking isn't merely a moral issue, said Mahuli Jakubek, the director of collaboration and environmental strategies at GUIDE. When teens imbibe alcohol, it can have physical repercussions.
A human brain takes about 23 to 25 years to fully develop, and researchers have found that the brain's hippocampus -- the part that's responsible for learning and memory -- can be damaged as a result of underage drinking. The hippocampus can be 10 percent smaller in children who drink while underage, and this brain damage can be long-term and irreversible, Jakubek said.
"If every parent knew that underage drinking could harm their child's brain ...," Jakubek said. "Nobody wants to harm their child's brain. Underage drinking is really a health/safety issue."