Underage drinking, defined as the consumption of alcohol by anyone below the age of 21,…
How Do Genes and Parental Rules Influence Teen Drinking?
Teen drinking is a fairly common activity in the U.S., despite its illegality and harmful impact on adolescent health and well-being. In a significant number of cases, people who start drinking heavily during their teenage years continue to drink heavily during adulthood and develop medically serious alcohol-related problems. In a study published in 2013 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a group of Dutch researchers investigated the role of two factors—genetic predisposition and parental rule-setting—in either increasing or decreasing any given teen’s likelihood of beginning a pattern of heavy alcohol consumption.
Teen Drinking Basics
In the U.S., teenagers drink alcohol more often than they smoke cigarettes or use any type of drug, according to recent figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 39 percent of all high schoolers drink at least some alcohol in any given month. In the same timeframe, about 22 percent of high schoolers engage in binge drinking, a form of highly risky alcohol intake that rapidly brings about legal intoxication. Although only one in five teens binge drinks regularly, binge drinking accounts for fully 90 percent of all underage alcohol consumption.
Teenagers who drink substantially heighten their chances of developing a range of physical and social problems. Prominent examples of these problems include potentially permanent changes in brain development, declining memory function, a lowered immune system response that increases risks for illness, potentially fatal alcohol poisoning, greater exposure to accidents and intentional injuries, participation in risky sexual practices, declining grades, school-related disciplinary issues and arrest for illegal conduct. While any teen who drinks can experience these problems, binge drinking teenagers typically have a higher level of risk.
Genes and Parental Rules
Genetic influences likely account for about half of any person’s chances of developing alcoholism or medically serious alcohol abuse. However, there is no single gene that accounts for alcohol-related risks. Instead, a number of genes interact with each other (and with several environmental factors) to create a person’s overall drinking-related risk profile. Parental rules are the codes of conduct that parents set and enforce for their children. Some parents set relatively strict conduct codes for their children and take clear steps to assess penalties when those codes are broken. Other parents set relatively loose conduct codes and don’t follow up rule violations with meaningful consequences. Still other parents fall somewhere on the spectrum between strict and loose rule setting and rule enforcement.
What Are the Impacts?
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, independent Dutch researchers and researchers from two Dutch institutions looked at how parental rules and one specific gene—called the OPRM1 gene—influence teenagers’ chances of becoming heavy drinkers. The OPRM1 gene comes in versions that make the brain either normally sensitive or unusually sensitive to the pleasurable sensations produced by alcohol intake. All told, the researchers’ efforts included 596 boys and girls who were, on average, roughly 14 years old at the beginning of the study and nearly 20 years old when the study came to a close. From early adolescence to late adolescence, 346 of the participants developed a pattern of light drinking that involved only small amounts of alcohol consumption; another 178 participants developed a more extensive pattern of drinking that involved moderate amounts of alcohol consumption. Seventy-two of the participants developed an excessive pattern of drinking that involved heavy amounts of alcohol consumption.
The researchers compared the three groups of teenagers to each other and drew several important conclusions. First, light-drinking teens are far more likely than their peers to have a version of the OPRM1 gene that does not boost the pleasurable reward produced by alcohol intake. Teens in this group also tend to have parents who set and enforce strict alcohol-related rules. Heavy-drinking teenagers are significantly more likely than their peers to have the gene that boosts the pleasure of alcohol intake. Interestingly, heavy-drinking teens with this gene whose parents set and enforce strict alcohol-related rules show a clear willingness to lower their consumption levels. By contrast, heavy-drinking teens who lack an unusual genetic sensitivity to alcohol don’t tend to lower their consumption levels when their parents set and enforce strict rules.
The authors of the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research believe that their findings clearly demonstrate how genetic influences and parental rule setting interact to raise or lower any given adolescent’s chances of drinking lightly, moderately or heavily. Understanding of this interaction may help improve future efforts to identify at-risk teenagers before they develop entrenched, dysfunctional drinking behaviors.