Opinion: Underage drinking increases the risk for addiction
The team of psychologists, therapists, and educators at the Southfield Center applaud the public health campaign initiated by the Thriving Youth Task Force of The Community Fund of Darien. By any measure, binge drinking during adolescence is a serious public health concern with both immediate and serious consequences for teenagers and their families and with long-term costs to our society.
Neuroscientific research over the last 10 years has conclusively demonstrated that alcohol not only affects the developing adolescent brain differently from an adult brain, but can interfere with normal brain functioning. Supporting this finding are these facts: Nine out of 10 people who abuse or are addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs began using these substances before they were 18 and the risk of addiction decreases each year that substance use is delayed during the period of adolescent brain development (fully completed by approximately age 25).
Factors that initiate and perpetuate teen drinking are social norms, including parental attitudes and beliefs that alcohol consumption during adolescence is normative and expected. Analogous to our former erroneous acceptance of cigarette smoking, this acceptance of alcohol consumption in adolescence is dangerous. Furthermore, a dramatic shift in public attitudes and understanding will be critical to prevention.
As a practitioner, I have never heard a parent excuse cigarette smoking as “normal experimentation” or as an expected rite of passage. Many teenagers and college students regard alcohol consumption as a right or even an entitlement. Unlike cigarette smoking, there has been no historical suppression of the science that clearly demonstrates the immediate dangers, long-term, negative health implications, and societal costs of alcohol use during adolescence.
The research, however, on the acute and long term consequences of underage drinking has yet to be sufficiently disseminated and integrated into our public consciousness.
The Thriving Youth campaign seeks to fill the gap between scientific knowledge and popular opinion by raising consciousness about the risks associated with underage drinking and the integral role that parents can play in teens’ decisions to drink (or not to drink) alcohol. Studies have repeatedly shown that parents’ attitude toward drinking often predicts if their children will drink.
I have not met many parents who gave their teens overt permission to drink alcohol, although it could be argued that the willingness to host teen parties where drinking is involved is a form of encouragement.
More often than not, parents give ambiguous messages to their teens such as “I do not want you to drink, but just tell me if you do so,” or “I would rather have you drink in the house than go out to parties and drink.” In exchange for honesty and transparency, these parents inadvertently forfeit their ability to discipline or impose restrictions when their teenagers use or abuse alcohol. These same parents are often in a bind when the drinking, in their opinion, becomes excessive.
What ensues is a ponderous debate about how much is too much. I have rarely met a teenager who did not interpret an ambiguous message about drinking as tacit permission to do so, or at least unspoken tolerance for underage drinking
The Thriving Youth program of The Community Fund of Darien is taking a bold and courageous step toward changing public attitudes and beliefs about underage drinking.
Instead of taking the well-worn approach of focusing exclusively on teenagers, the campaign is also focused on parents and other adults who have directly and indirectly communicated permissive or ambiguous attitudes about underage drinking —attitudes that were generally formed during their own teenage years and then carried forward. It is time that we adults hold our implicit beliefs about underage drinking up to the science that did not exist in our youth. Drinking alcohol, like cigarette smoking, during the teen years dramatically increases the risk for addiction and long term health problems.
This campaign is a critical and audacious step in the right direction.