Media, Parents, Peers Influence Teen Alcohol Use

Posted on November 7th, 2013

Underage drinking, defined as the consumption of alcohol by anyone below the age of 21, is a widespread illegal activity in the U.S. In addition, minors who drink commonly engage in binge drinking, a form of alcohol consumption that significantly increases the chances for harmful or fatal outcomes. In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, researchers from three U.S. institutions examined the factors that influence teenagers’ attitudes toward alcohol intake. These researchers found that several factors work together to help form the outlook of any given teen.

Underage Drinking Basics

Teenagers in the U.S. use/abuse alcohol more often than any other substance, including tobacco and marijuana, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. Periodically, the CDC tracks rates of teen alcohol consumption through a nationwide monitoring program called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. According to the latest figures from this survey, compiled for 2011, about 39 percent of U.S. high school students consume some amount of alcohol in any given month. In addition, 24 percent of high-schoolers ride in vehicles driven by someone using alcohol, and 8 percent of high-schoolers drive others while using alcohol.

Underage consumption of alcohol substantially increases teenagers’ (and preteens’) risks for a number of serious, negative life events. Examples of these events include arrest and criminal prosecution, involvement in fatal or non-fatal car accidents, involvement in unprotected sex, episodes of fatal or non-fatal alcohol poisoning, involvement in coercive sexual acts (rapes or assaults), poor academic performance, disruptive classroom conduct, involvement in other forms of substance use/abuse, homicide, suicide and long-term disruptions of normal brain development. In addition, current evidence indicates that teens who start drinking prior to their 15th birthdays have lifetime rates for alcohol abuse or alcoholism that are five times higher than the rates found in people who start drinking only after reaching legal age.

Special Risks of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is defined by the consumption of enough alcohol to reach the legal definition of intoxication in two hours or less. More than 90 percent of all the alcohol used by underage drinkers is consumed during binge-drinking episodes, the CDC notes. As a rule, binge-drinking teenagers have higher risks for all negative outcomes from alcohol intake than teens who drink at a more moderate pace. In particular, through its strong association with alcohol poisoning and involvement in motor vehicle accidents, binge drinking contributes substantially to the 4,700-plus yearly deaths associated with underage alcohol consumption in the U.S.

Formation of Teens’ Attitudes

In the study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, researchers from Florida State University, the University of Louisville and the University of Texas at San Antonio used a series of small-scale focus groups to examine the factors that contribute to a child’s thinking on alcohol use in his or her formative, early teenage years. Specifically, these focus groups looked at the factors that promote the approval of underage drinking, the factors that promote the disapproval of underage drinking and the ways in which young adolescents consider the risks of alcohol use.

After completing an analysis of the focus groups’ responses, the researchers concluded that a complex interaction of several distinct factors leads a young teen to have positive or negative views of underage drinking. These factors include the alcohol-related attitudes and actions of parents and other family members, the alcohol-related attitudes and actions of other adults encountered outside of the family unit, a teen’s level of exposure to pro-alcohol and anti-alcohol messages through various forms of media, the attitudes toward alcohol use held by a teen’s peer group and the actual level of alcohol intake in a teen’s peer group. The relative contributions of each of these factors form the core of any given teen’s overall positive or negative outlook.

In a separate study, published in 2012 in the journal BMC Public Health, a team of Australian researchers focused on the impact of parental attitudes on teen involvement in underage drinking. Particular factors examined here included parents’ ability to stick to established legal and public health guidelines for underage drinking, as well as the steps parents take to reduce or eliminate their teens’ alcohol consumption. The authors of this study concluded that most parents have good intentions and do what they can to help their children avoid alcohol consumption. However, they also concluded that many parents fail to fully follow legal and public health guidelines and do such things as supply alcohol to their underage children or comply with their children’s requests to provide alcohol for other teen drinkers.

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