Alcohol and teenagers - getting the messages straight

New research just out from the charity Drinkaware suggests the average young person has their first alcoholic drink at the age of 13, and half of 10 to 17 year-olds say that it was their parent who gave them their first drink. That’s good, right? Much better they have their first taste of alcohol with mum or dad around to keep an eye on them.

Well, it’s probably not so simple. There’s good evidence that the younger you start drinking, the more likely you are to drink too much and too often. What’s more, while there is no doubt that adults can drink a certain amount of alcohol without coming to any harm, we just don’t know that’s the case with young people. Their bodies, including their brains, are changing so fast that even a small amount of alcohol can do irreversible harm.

That’s why the Chief Medical Officer recommends that young people shouldn’t drink any alcohol until they’re 16.

A new campaign by Drinkaware has brought together a group of mothers with an interest in helping other parents navigate their way through the thorny issue of alcohol and young people. I’m proud to say I’m a member of the panel. The think tank came out of research which shows that:

  • 43% of parents worry that their children’s friends have more impact on their drinking behaviour than they do. In fact, young people say their parents have more influence than anyone else.
  • While 83% of parents agree it is important to talk to their kids about alcohol, a third admit that there are many things they do not know about the effects of alcohol on children.
  • Only 17% of parents have a planned conversation with their child about the harm that alcohol can cause.
  • If parents set realistic rules around drinking, young people are less likely to get drunk.

When parents do talk to their kids, what sort of messages will make a difference? As an adult, you may be horrified by the damage alcohol can do, not just to your liver, but also by increasing your risk of cancer. Young people are unlikely to be impressed – after all, they’re going to live forever. It may take different messages to resonate to a 17 year-old:

  • Alcohol kills brain cells – drinking in your teenage years can affect your memory and attention span in the long term. With competition for university so hot, it could make all the difference.
  • Alcohol has almost as many calories as pure fat. It also dehydrates you, making your skin look pale and grey.
  • Your digital footprint is with you forever. We live in a very different world today than the one I grew up in. When I was a teenager, if you got drunk you might end up in A&E (or worse still, getting attacked or sexually assaulted) but only your friends and family would know. Today, there’s the added threat that anyone with a mobile phone could video you vomiting in the gutter or letting yourself get groped, post it on the internet and ‘tag’ it – reputation ruined for life. Technology matters to young people – nearly 40% of young people in one survey admitted to experiencing ‘cybershame’ - regretting something posted online when drinking on a night out. Universities and employers often look online before deciding which candidates to accept, and you may not be able to undo the damage by ‘untagging’ a photo.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.