Research tells us clearly that teens and alcohol don’t mix. (In fact, medical studies routinely suggest that humans and alcohol don’t mix!) One in ten teens have a regrettable sexual experience related to alcohol consumption. One in five injure themselves while drunk. And the earlier our kids start drinking, the greater the risk of alcohol problems throughout their lives (1). Then there’s the issue of the way alcohol impacts on brain development (2).
Given the dangers of alcohol, particularly for teenagers, and the regular news stories describing out-of-control teens, it is a good news day when data points to reductions in teen drinking.
The Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey (ASSAD) highlighted that drinking among 12-15 year-olds fell from 29% in 2002 to just 11% in 2011 (when asking about past-week consumption). Among the slightly older group of 16-17 year-olds the numbers also fell sharply, from nearly one in two (48%) to only one in three (33%) who had been drinking in the past week (3). (It’s worth pointing out that while our alcohol consumption is dropping, so too are youth use of tobacco and illicit drugs on average.)
What the data tells us
Recent research, published in the scholarly journal Addiction shows that the trend is continuing and has been found to be true in multiple areas. In this research, participants were asked if they had consumed alcohol in the previous 12 months – certainly a much clearer indication of drinking behaviour than the ASSAD report which considered only the past week. The data told the following story:
– From 2001, overall alcohol abstinence for 14-17 year-olds increased from 32.9% to 50.2% in 2010.
– The pattern of alcohol abstinence improvements was consistent for both male and female respondents.
– While alcohol consumption increases as our teens get older, the numbers are improving each year. For example, only 18% of 17 year-olds were abstaining in 2001, this had increased to 28.7% in 2010 – nearly one in three.
– Young people who are students are more likely to abstain from alcohol (54.6%) than young people who are working (26.1%).
– Young males are slightly more likely to abstain from alcohol than young females.
Why is this happening?
The research suggests three key reasons for the shift in the change towards tee-totalling among our youth:
– There are strong social concerns about alcohol and young people. With regular stories in the news about “alcohol-fuelled violence”, or schoolies who fall from balconies, there seems to be a strong social push to emphasise the dangers of alcohol and the need to restrict its availability.
– Some data points to new technologies and leisure pursuits pulling teens away from the bottle. If our kids are spending 3-6 hours a day playing games and interacting with their devices, they have less time for drinking.
– As Australia’s population becomes increasingly diverse, some researchers suggest that the cultural norms of our population are shifting, with youth raised by parents from non-drinking (or lighter-drinking) cultures following the examples of their parents.
We can’t hide from the fact that some children may be experimenting with other drugs… although alcohol remains a central ‘gateway’ drug. That is, it’s the drug kids go to first before moving on to other drugs.
Research tells us that our teenagers are most likely to drink alcohol when they have parents who endorse it and peers who do it.
If the data are accurate, we are seeing an important public health change occurring in our youth, making them healthier and safer than previous generations. Plenty of people love to point out that society is falling apart. This research gives us glimmers of hope and suggests that in most cases, the kids are alright.
But there is more work to do. With schoolies week commencing, it is inevitable that too many teens are going to get smashed. If you are a concerned and engaged parent, here are my top tips to reduce the likelihood that your child will make dumb decisions:
– Actually have that conversation with your teenagers. Tell them what your expectations are and provide clear rationales for what you’re asking.
– Invite their perspective. See things through their eyes. Listen and understand. If they say, “I’m probably going to drink”, find out why. Ask how much. Explore the idea with them. Find out who they’ll be with and what those friends’ plans are.
– Problem solve together. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, invite dialogue and discussion. Work out how you can both get what you want. Walk through scenarios. Make sure you are both on top of things.
– If you don’t feel good about where things are headed, make it known. Once your children are over 18 they will make up their own mind regardless of what you say. (And I meant 18 years, not 18 months… although some parents struggle from then!). But use controlling techniques as little as possible.
– Make sure that they absolutely know that they can call if they’re in trouble and you will help them. You may not save them from all of the consequences of foolish actions, but if they are in genuine need, you’ll be there.
Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia’s leading parenting experts. He speaks to teachers and parents around Australia about relationships and wellbeing. Find out more at http://justincoulson.com.
(1) Bonomo Y., Coffey C., Wolfe R., Lynskey M., Bowes G., Patton G. Adverse outcomes of alcohol use in adolescents. Addiction2001; 96: 1485–1496.
(2) Brown, S. A., Tapert, S. F., Granholm, E., & Delis, D. C. (2000). Neurocognitive functioning of adolescents: Effects of protracted alcohol use.Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 24, 164–171. (see also Tapert, S. F., Grahnholm, E., Leedy, N. G., & Brown, S. A. (2002). Substance use and withdrawal: Neuropsychological functioning over 8 years in youth. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 8, 873–883.)
(3) White V., Bariola E. Australian secondary school students’ use of tobacco, alcohol, and over-the-counter and illicit substances in 2011. Melbourne: The Cancer Council Victoria; 2012.