Social Factors of Underage Drinking and Applying Deviance Theories

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As children we are taught the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and what we should and should not do. As we grow older, we try to steer away from behavior that society may deem as unacceptable. Society see certain types of behavior as deviant. According to Adler and Adler, deviance refers to violations of social norms. Today, our generation (youth) have a lot of access to the adult world. We are engaging in acts that our society does not approve of. Underage drinking is one of those acts that society deems as deviant. Using my own experiences, I will explain underage drinking while applying labeling theory and differential association theory.

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Social Facts of Underage Drinking

The younger generation has been battling with underage drinking for the past couple of years. Despite the legal drinking age being 21 in America, children as young as 12 have engaged in this behavior. Teens have reported (over 70%) that by the time they reach the age of 18, they have consumed at least one alcoholic beverage. According to the 2010 National Survey Drug Use and Health Data, “57.4% of males ages 12 and older were current drinkers compared with 46.5% of females in that age group. However, among underage drinkers, gender differences varied with age. By ages 18 to 20, 52.1% of males and 47.0% of females reported past-month alcohol use’. What drives minors to engage in drinking illegally? Peer pressure could be the most common possibility. When in social groups or social contexts teenagers could feel pressured to drink in order to fit in. Many of them want to try it but do not fully recognize the effects it could have on them in the long run. According to NIAAA, in 2015, 95.1 % reported that they got alcohol for free the last time that they drank. This means that teenagers these days have easy access either through friends, family members, or they find it at home.

Applying Deviance Theories

Before college, I was known as someone who would always follow the rules and do what I was told. Went to school, got straight As, did a lot of volunteer work, and was always respectful to everyone. Once I got to Mercer and realized how much freedom I had everything changed. I had my first drink my second week of school. I was skeptical at first to try alcohol, but my friends at the time were very persistent that I do it so that I can be a normal college student and have some fun. In their eyes I was some boring, basic girl and in their words “I needed to loosen up and have some fun.” The start of my underage drinking can be explained by differential association theory. Edwin Sutherland proposes that criminal behavior is learned through a process of associating with others who also break the law. He states that people’s level of deviance “may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. 

The group of people that I was hanging out with were people that I would normally never associate myself with, but I was curious and wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. Honestly, I did not like the taste of alcohol, but I wanted to keep drinking so that I could keep up with my friends. At first, drinking was something that I did socially with them but eventually it became every weekend. I remember that one night I took it too far and blacked out. I woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar bed and an unfamiliar guy. Of course, he was a very popular/cocky guy who was on the lacrosse team and told all of his friends about what happened. Eventually news spread and it felt like everyone on the campus new what happened. You wouldn’t think that a guy and a girl having sex would be big news, but ever since that night people started labeling me. I was getting called a tramp, whore, slut, easy, alcoholic, and much more. Being called these names really affected me negatively, yet I still went out and started drinking and sleeping around more. Why? I was drinking more because I wanted to forget about all the negative stuff people were saying about me. The continuous act of drinking can be explained by Becker’s labeling theory. Society attach labels to people which has real effects on them because it influences their identity and how they perceive themselves. 

Edwin Lemert discussed the importance of deviant labels and described secondary deviance which is “individuals committing deviant acts who have been caught by someone and have been labeled as deviant; individuals continue to commit deviant acts”. For sleeping around more, I was starting to believe all the labels people were giving me so why not prove them right. I was drinking so much and every weekend I would black out and without fail, the next morning I would wake up in a stranger’s bed. This cycle continued on for months sending me into a very deep depression. I stopped going to class, from either being too depressed or hungover from the night before, so my grades started suffering. Because of my how poorly I was doing in school, I started to drink during the day to numb the pain. This vicious cycle also caused me to seclude myself from the world and my friends/teammates, and my performance in golf tournaments was suffering. The only thing that I was capable of doing was drinking, partying, and having sex which definitely lived up to the reputation that people gave me. When the school year ended, I got the wake-up call that I needed. I was informed that I was going to get kicked out of Mercer and I definitely was going to suspended from the golf team if I did not get some help. Over winter break, I got the help I needed, parted from the previous group of friends, improving my golf game, and having new academic goals so that I could have a better semester in the spring. 

When I got back to school, my previous friend group tried really hard to convince me to hang out and drink with them again. The offer was very tempting, but I had too much to lose if I decided to go back to my old behaviors. Travis Hirschi’s control theory can best describe my decision to stay away from drinking. Hirschi states, “control theories assume that delinquent acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weak or broken”. He assumes that everyone will find some form of deviance tempting, but the thought of ruining their career keeps them from breaking the rules. Hirschi links conformity to four different types of social control: attachment, opportunity, involvement, and belief. For me, I had stronger relationships with my family, teammates, and my coaches and I did not want to disappoint them like I did the semester before (attachment). Second, I had a real chance of becoming one of the best collegiate-golfer and becoming a professional and did not want to let excessive drinking ruin my chance of doing something that I love (opportunity). Third, I was involved in a lot of activities: golf, volunteering at Daybreak and Atlanta Humane Society, and SAAC, so I did not have a lot of time to just drink and party. Finally, I had strong beliefs that drinking, especially underage, is really bad and something that I should never partake in ever again.


Deviance is this concept that a person or a group partakes in a behavior or activity that society deems unacceptable. They are going against the norm. Norms can differ considerably across different groups, cities, states, and countries. In years past, kids used to see drinking as taboo or as something only adults do. Now, they see drinking as a way to fit in in the eyes of their peers. Once society sees someone underage that is drinking, they consider them deviating from the norm. Usually, most underage drinkers will take the view or label that society gives them and continue on with the behavior, which can be negative in the long run. Many of the theories have identified that when underage drinkers are labeled and has become part of their identity, they will start playing the role which is a cycle that needs to be stopped.


  1. Kawaguchi, Riku. 2019. “Social Reaction Theories 2.” Presented at Mercer University.
  2. Hirschi, Travis, 1969 [2002]. “A Control Theory of Delinquency.” Pp.16-23 in Causes of Delinquency. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  3. Becker, Howard, 1963. ”Moral Entrepreneurs.” Pp. 162-163 in Outsiders.
  4. Adler, Patricia A. and Adler, Peter. 2012. “Defining Deviance.” Pp.11 in Constructions of Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
  5. Sutherland, Edwin H. and Cressey, Donald R. 1966. “A Sociological Theory of Criminal Behavior.” Pp.81-82 in Principles of Criminology 7th Edition. Philadelphia. PA: J.P. Lippincott
  6. 2019. “Underage Drinking Statistics Within the US.” Retrieved October 23, 2019 (
  7. Cbhsq, et al. “Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Results from the 2010 NSDUH: Summary of National Findings, SAMHSA, CBHSQ. Retrieved October 23, 2019 (
  8. “Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved October 23, 2019). (
07 April 2022

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