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Teen's Attitudes About Alcohol
Their Mindset Matches Their Era
An article from David R. Smith at

Alcohol plays a role in all forms of entertainment media, and advertisements for the elixir can be found throughout our culture. Thus, it’s no surprise that teenagers have better knowledge of alcohol and greater access to it than ever before.

And sadly, many teens are acting on that knowledge and access.

Alcohol and Adolescence
A new study recently published in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows that by the time most teens reach late adolescence, most of them have drank alcohol and abused illicit substances. I know that news isn’t exactly shocking, but understanding the correlation between “early substance use” and “lifetime substance use” might be. (The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has stated that the average age of “first time alcohol” use can be as early as age 12. They also believe that out of the estimated 20 million alcoholics in America, more than half began drinking as teens.)

Researchers asked 10,123 teens, ages 13 to 18, about their drinking and drug habits and then compared the results to lifetime estimates of alcohol and illicit substance abuse. (I won’t be focusing on the increase of teenage marijuana use in this article; that’s another sad subject all together). They found that 78% of U.S. teens had drank alcohol (at least once), and that 47% said they’d consumed 12 or more drinks in the past year. (When it came to drug use, 81% of teens said they had “the opportunity” to use illicit substances, while 42.5% admitted to actually trying them.)

With a big majority of teens trying alcohol and almost half of them drinking on a somewhat regular basis, a natural question might be, Where are they getting the booze from? In addition to sneaking it from their parents’ stash at home and having older acquaintances purchase it for them, young people have continued in their “creativity” when it comes to getting a buzz. For years, we’ve heard about teens drinking alcohol-based cough syrups and mouth washes, but more recently, young people seeking a buzz have turned to that staple of Western Civilization, hand sanitizer.

Yep. Teens who are dedicated enough can separate the ethyl alcohol from the gel-based cleanser, netting themselves a liquid that is 120 proof, an extremely high alcohol content. The LA Times recently ran a story about six teens in the San Fernando Valley who showed up at ERs within a short time of one another, all suffering from the effects of alcohol poisoning they contracted from hand sanitizer.

Maybe teens should pay attention to the warning label that reads “for external use only.”

Blockbusters and Binge Drinking
Given young people’s affinity for alcohol use, many adults are constantly on the lookout for anything that may influence kids to drink. Culture, including media and celebrities, has long topped the list of suspects, but researchers from several European nations have found that the movies kids watch may play a specific role in teens’ decisions about booze.

Their research discovered an interesting parallel: the more scenes of alcohol use teens watch on the big screen, the greater their risk of “binge drinking.” 16,500 students were asked how often they drank five alcoholic beverages during one sitting (the standard amount deemed “binge drinking”), and about the types of movies they watched, which included many box-office hits from the United States. Overall, 27% of the European adolescents surveyed had engaged in binge drinking, a slightly higher percentage than young people in America.

Thank you The Hangover and The Hangover 2.

By the way, very similar studies were conducted in the U.S. and found very much the same thing. After charting the amount of “movie alcohol exposure” American kids were subjected to in several hundred popular films, they found that the chances for binge drinking increased from 4% to 13%. That’s not good news.

Equally important is a related and somewhat surprising find by The Partnership at which claims that many of our nation’s teens do not see downing 5 (or more) alcoholic drinks at a time as a big problem. When asked if the teens saw “great risk” in drinking that much alcohol, 45% said no. According to their study, teens said the top reasons for drinking were “because it is fun” and “so they won't feel left out.”

Interestingly, a similar link was discovered in the States between teen drinking and beer ads on TV. Researchers found that the more familiar a young person (between the ages 15 and 20) was with alcohol ads, the more likely they were to have tried alcohol and binge drink than young people who couldn’t identify beer brands, ads, or slogans.

But the researchers leading the studies on this side of the Atlantic said their findings also suggested that “family focused interventions would have a larger impact on alcohol onset while limiting media and marketing exposure could help prevent both onset and progression.”

Score one for mom and dad.

Parents: (Much) Better Than AA
The elders in my family have a saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That proverb certainly rings true when it comes to steering young people away from the devastation associated with alcohol use and abuse.

With studies on alcohol use by teens happening around the globe, researchers in the Netherlands have offered an encouraging piece of news that parents in America have long-hoped would be true: parents’ attitudes on teen drinking can deter teens’ use of alcohol. In fact, their studies suggest that parental disapproval can prove to be a powerful force in keeping teens from succumbing to the impulse to drink. Researchers have discovered abundant evidence that shows the longer teenagers delay drinking; the less likely they are to have problems with alcohol in the long run.

Parents who want to help their kids sidestep the pitfalls of alcohol use will need a few strategies for doing so. Here are a few:

  1. Lead by example. As usual, the most important one goes first. If you want to deeply impact your kids’ relationship with alcohol, live your life in such a way that you can genuinely say, “Do what I do,” instead of having to say, “Do what I say.” All of us – kids included – have a built in hypocrisy radar. Teenagers can easily spot the difference between “preaching” and “practice.” So, don’t just “talk” about the dangers of alcohol use, avoid them yourself, and encourage your kid to follow your example.

  2. Tell stories. I’m a big believer in stories. Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life revolve around my parents and mentors telling me stories. My parents effectively used stories to tell me about the damage alcohol caused my extended family and friends, people I personally know. Those stories communicated deep truths about real people’s lives and experiences, and invited me in to wonder what would happen if I made the same mistakes. Stories put a face on the facts. We can learn from others’ failures and successes, so let’s share stories with our kids.

  3. Equip them with strategies to beat pressure. Leading by example and telling great stories will only go so far; eventually, our kids will be tempted to drink when we’re not around. Make sure to prepare them for this moment. First, tell them it will happen! Second, give them a few tools to rely on in those moments. That may include lessons on picking the right friends, knowing when to leave a dangerous situation, or even calling home in the midst of a temptation. However you choose to coach your kids, make sure they know their options for this inevitable moment.

As parents, we have a God-intended influence with our kids; it’s part of His ingenious design. We need to take advantage of it as it relates to our kids’ attitudes – and use – of alcohol.

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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