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Tipsy Teens
What's (Really) Behind Teen Drinking?
An article from David R. Smith at

Google “teen drinking” and you’ll find 8.6 million sites/pages on the subject. Those sources range from “statistics” to “stories” about the issue. Some denounce it; some defend it. All of them theorize why teen drinking exists.

And that’s where the divide begins.

An Acknowledged Problem
Ironically, one of alcoholics’ biggest problems is that they don’t think they have a problem. But that’s not the case with teen drinkers; almost everyone agrees that alcohol use by teens constitutes serious problems. But how big is that problem?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC)…REALLY BIG!

Don’t worry; we don’t need to invent some inflated “alarmist” stats. Sadly, here’s the documented truth. Some of the CDC’s latest studies have found that 42% of high school students drank “some” alcohol in the past 30 days. 24% of the same group admitted binge drinking (which is defined as consuming 4-5 drinks in one hour). Underage drinkers (age 12-20) routinely consume 11% of all the alcohol drank in the United States. And in 2008, there were 190,000 ER visits by people under the age of 21 because of accidents linked to alcohol.

I’d say the CDC’s concerns are well founded.

But where is this problem coming from? By law, it’s illegal for teens to purchase, own, or drink alcohol because the legal age is still 21 in America. Beyond that, why do teens even want to drink alcohol? There’s an awful lot of underage drinking going on, and during the last couple of months, many have proposed what – or who – is to blame.

Let the finger pointing begin.

Today’s Music
I don’t want to be a whiner, I don’t want to be a complainer, but let’s get real. Media is definitely talking about alcohol. According to a joint study by Dartmouth and the University of Pittsburgh, teenagers who listen to rap and/or hip hop music hear more than three references to brand name alcohol every hour. By their numbers, that’s roughly 34 references per day.

For example, Far East Movement’s song Like a G6, which went #1 on Billboard’s charts late in 2010, opens this way:
Poppin’ bottles in the ice, like a blizzard
When we drink we do it right gettin’ slizzard
Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride, like three 6
Now I’m feelin’ so fly like a G6

In the remainder of the song’s lyrics, several brands of alcohol are listed by name (just as the research claims). In Jonathan McKee’s eye-opening article about today’s high school dances, In the Dark, he cited this song as one of the ironic twists of the evening. The school told the students, no drinking, but then played this song with the chorus, “Hell yeah, drink it up, drink-drink it up!” Jonathan later shared with me how one of the teenagers crowned as “Homecoming King” that night passed out drunk, literally falling off of the stage.

T.I.’s smash hit Whatever You Like, another #1 single on previous Billboard charts, repeats the line “stacks on deck, Patrón on ice” several times throughout the course of the whole song.

Most recently, Give Me Everything by Pitbull (and friends), which went #1 this summer, includes this pattern of thinking:
Excuse me
But I might drink a little more than I should tonight
And I might take you home with me if I could tonight
And maybe I'm a make you feel so good tonight
Cause we might not get tomorrow

Throughout the rest of the song, he repeats that “game plan” several times.

Just a cursory glance at these songs shows why rap and hip hop music can be intoxicating for young people. Even though some artists in this genre deny being a role model, their influence on the lives of teens is almost immeasurable, and thus, makes their passive attitudes sound incredulous (and ignorant).

Is gratuitous mentioning of drinking limited to just rap and hip hop? Not even close. Alcohol, partying, and “raising your glass” are common themes in songs that dominated the top charts, songs like, Last Friday Night, Raise Your Glass, Cheers (Drink to That), as well. In fact, there are too many to list.

But we’re just getting started.

Online Social Networks
As far as Columbia University is concerned, media’s influence on teen drinking isn’t limited to just music. Their research has led them to propose additional culprits responsible for teen drinking: Facebook and Twitter. They’ve noted that teens who visit online social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are more likely to drink alcohol than teens who don’t peruse those sites.

Yep, they link social media and teen drinking.

This might sound a little far fetched to some. But researchers at Columbia’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse discovered that teens who use social media are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to drink alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana. Their reason why? Roughly 40% of teens have seen pictures of other teens drinking and/or using drugs on those sites.

Ironically, this study also revealed that 87% of parents disavowed any connection between online socializing and alcohol use…even though only 64% of them said they take the time to monitor their kids’ social networking.

Well, since we’ve brought them up, let’s talk about everybody’s favorite scapegoat….

Uninformed Parents
Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital have identified another factor influencing teens’ decision to drink: uninformed parents.

When these researchers polled parents of 10th graders, they discovered that only 10% of the parents thought their own sophomores drank alcohol. OK. That number represents a “manageable” number of wayward teens and also provides some hope that most parents are leading their kids in the right direction.

Unfortunately, that number also represents a wildly incorrect reality.

That’s because, in one of their earlier studies of teens from 420 schools in 2010, 52% of 10th graders admitted using alcohol. That’s a really, really wide gap! By the way, a similar gap was found to exist between parents who think their kids might smoke marijuana (5%) and kids who actually do use the illegal drug (28%).

Perhaps this is why an article in the LA Times used the word “clueless” in reference to these parents. In short, that article talked about the amount of influence parents “thought” their kids’ friends had over them versus the amount of influence their kids’ friends “actually” had over them.

So we might as well talk about peers, while we’re at it.

A new study of almost 1,000 teenagers (grades 7th through 12th) by has also linked teen drinking to the friends of a teenager’s girlfriend or boyfriend. The study suggests that teenagers with a new boyfriend or girlfriend tend to be more influenced by the drinking habits of their romantic partner's friends than by the girlfriend/boyfriend.

This research isn’t saying that boyfriends and girlfriends do not influence a teen’s decision to drink. It’s acknowledging that possibility…and claiming that the boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) friends also influence a teen’s decision to use alcohol.

If that sounds different than what you’ve previously heard, consider the rationale of Derek Kreager, Ph.D., professor at Penn State. He says, “Think of your son or daughter’s new significant other as a bridge to a whole other group that he or she is now going to be exposed to.”

Sounds like “friends” needs to be on parents’ checklist, too. In fact, all of these suspected causes need to be addressed by caring adults.

Fixing the Problem
Admitting the problem of drinking is only the first step toward solution. The second step is just as crucial: make life changes. While youth workers have some influence here, the brunt of the responsibility lies with parents. We need to address the potential factors that lead to teen drinking in hopes of putting an end to it. Here are a couple ideas.

  1. Monitor media. This cannot be harped enough. Regardless of music or the Internet’s actual influence on teen drinking…monitoring these two outlets is important for tons of other reasons! Get acquainted with the music your teens listen to and the websites they visit. Further, sit down and watch their favorite TV shows with them to see what messages are being pumped into their heads. Don’t just drop them off at the theater; go in and see the film with them (after reading our reviews, first). Yes, these simple steps require some investment of time, but isn’t it worth it?

  2. Talk about temptations. Oftentimes, the difference between parents of kids who drink and parents of kids who do not drink is nothing more than regular conversations. The parents who have solid kids are usually those who spend time outlining expectations, consequences, help, and encouragement about the various pitfalls of life. Like everyone else, teens love stories. Carefully put your own experiences in the context of a good story and they’ll listen intently. Just make sure that you’re listening at least as much as you’re talking during these times!

There’s good news: plenty of parents have gotten this right! According to the research, roughly half of parents are successfully guiding their kids through the troubles of teen drinking. Look around your church or neighborhood to see who they are. Then take them out for lunch or coffee to glean as much help from them as possible. You’re not alone in this fight; take advantage of every tool at your disposal. Eventually, you’ll make a big difference.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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Comments on this post

   dan manns         11/8/2011 10:12:38 AM

thanks David for another great article. i appreciate the well-thought out and relevent information. in my area a high school student who graduated in june was recently found dead after a night of drinking and doing drugs. his body was found by his family in some bushes on the banks of a local creek after he had been missing for a couple of days. he was placed there by his "friends" who didn't want to get into trouble after the young man took a nasty fall while under the influence. yet in the media drinking is always portrayed as nothing but fun and games and every bber commercial you see is like some cheesy comedy sketch. sometimes life doesn't mimic art. it's a serious issue with serious consequences for this generation and i thank you for bringing this topic to light.

   Aaron         11/6/2011 12:36:03 AM

"By law, it’s illegal for teens to purchase, own, or drink alcohol because the legal age is still 21 in America." I'd like to point out that this actually isn't a correct statement, although it's not the first time I've seen this mistake. Contrary to popular belief, only a few states prohibit minors and young adults from consuming alcohol in private settings. As of January 1, 2010, 15 states and the District of Columbia ban underage consumption outright, 17 states do not ban underage consumption, and the remaining 18 states have family member and/or location exceptions to their underage consumption laws. I know that this is a somewhat insignificant detail compared to the importance of the rest of the article, but I just thought that I'd mention it anyways.


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