Saturday, 17 June 2017

If fewer teens are drinking alcohol and if they do drink, they're older when they start, do we know why?

With the release of the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) results we now have even more evidence that growing numbers of our young people are choosing not to drink alcohol. At the end of last year we saw the release of the data from the Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey(23,000 students from Catholic, Independent and state schools surveyed from across the country) which told a very similar story. Put simply, fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol. My favourite piece of data from the ASSAD survey is that in 1999 we had around one in ten 12-17-year-olds who had never used alcohol, but in the 2014 survey we had 1 in 3 who reported never drinking. That is a phenomenal result and a cultural shift that we should be celebrating!

This is not just an Australian phenomenon, we are seeing similar results in many parts of the world. I was in The Netherlands last year when their school data was released and their numbers are almost identical to ours, the recently-released US figures show a decline and some of the UK figures show quite dramatic reductions in alcohol use. It would appear that we are seeing a shift in attitudes towards alcohol and drinking amongst our young people. Now it's important to make it clear that we still have significant issues with some of our teens and underage drinking. Australian data shows that although we appear to have fewer teens drinking, those that do, continue to drink in a risky way, with some research suggesting that they may even be drinking in a riskier manner than in the past.

So if there are fewer Australian teens drinking (and that certainly reflects what I see in schools across the country), why is this happening?

There has been very little research conducted on those young people who choose not to drink and why they make this decision. Most studies have focused on how this group deals with the pressures they face to drink, particularly during adolescence, as well as examining some of the strategies they choose to use in social situations to avoid drinking. As more young people make the decision not to drink (or at the very least, delay their first drink or drink less), however, more research is being conducted, particularly in university or college settings in the US, and, as a result, we are learning more about their motivations. 

Some of the more 'traditional' reasons given for young people not drinking include the following:
  • religious and/or cultural prohibitions
  • sporting or academic ambitions
  • family history of alcohol misuse
  • not liking the taste and/or effects of alcohol
  • cost of alcohol
In more recent research, although factors such as taste, cost and not fitting in with other commitments continue to be identified, it would appear that real life observations (i.e., young people watching those around them, both family and friends), appear to have the greatest influence. In a 2014 study looking at young people who drink little or no alcohol, the following influences were identified:
  • good parental models – their family set boundaries around appropriate drinking behaviours and had provided them with positive role models in 'how to drink'
  • seeing negative effects of alcohol on family members – as much as the family can provide good role models around sensible drinking, some young people experience the negative consequences of parents' or other family members' alcohol use and the problems it causes to their lives and relationships leading them to choose to abstain
  • seeing negative effects of alcohol on friends and others around them – friends and others drinking to excess and experiencing problems (e.g., personal harm and damaged social reputations) reinforced the decision not to drink
None of these are really surprising and still don't explain why we have seen such a significant change with the young people of today. Could there be something that is unique about this generation that makes them view alcohol and drinking differently? 
Recently, there have been a number of studies conducted in the UK that have sought to explain why we are seeing growing numbers of those aged 18-25 years choosing not to drink alcohol. A 2016 article in the New Scientist called 'Generation Clean' highlighted some 'modern' issues that have been identified in recent research that could possibly explain this phenomenon. These included the following:
  • financial pressures – this, of course, relates to the cost of alcohol once again, but studies suggest that this generation, in particular, have great concern in this area with growing student debt, greater job insecurity and rising housing costs. Drinking alcohol costs money and there is evidence to suggest that some young people are opting for cheaper ways of socializing
  • socializing no longer requires meeting in a pub or bar – there are a number of studies to suggest that social media could be impacting on drinking behaviour. Traditional methods of communicating and socializing continue to be important for many, but there are now other options and young people are embracing these. So much communication is now conducted on-line and does not necessarily have to involve holding a drink in your hand in a crowded venue
  • concern about on-line image - once again, this relates to social media and the fact that cameras are everywhere. If you drink to excess and do something stupid, it is now there forever. Young people are also becoming increasingly aware that employers often look into a job-seeker's online presence - what you do on a Saturday night can have long-term implications on your future employment prospects
  • increasingly diverse populations – as countries increasingly welcome newcomers from cultures where drinking is less common, some experts believe this could be exposing young people to alternative ways of socializing that don't necessarily have to involve alcohol
  • possible 'backlash' to the excess of their elders – this is a particularly interesting one and is often referred to as the 'Ab Fab' theory (after the TV show Absolutely Fabulous). It suggests that young people are choosing not to partake, essentially bucking the trends of their parents (the teens of the 90s) who were drinking to excess and experimenting with illicit drugs
From my perspective I believe that one of the major changes we are seeing with our current school-based young people is the growing acceptance of non-drinkers by those who choose to drink. More and more, non-drinkers are now being regarded as a valuable part of a social group. Where once the 'cool drinking group' would want nothing to do with those who didn't drink, they now welcome them, knowing full well that they can be very useful on a Saturday night. Not only are they the people who look after those who get into trouble but they can also be incredibly useful in later years as the 'designated driver'.
When I try to explain these very positive results to parents I boil it down to three things, firstly I think there is enough evidence to suggest that social media is indeed having a significant influence. The way young people communicate and socialize is now very different from in the past and this must be having some impact. This does not always have to be a positive influence (as I'm sure every parent is aware) but there is a growing awareness amongst teens of their online image and social media does offer them so many other ways of interacting with their peer group, particularly for those who are not interested in partying and drinking to excess.

Secondly, you can't underestimate the impact of education in this area. We now have a much better idea of 'what works' in school-based drug education drug education around alcohol. Simply saying "don't drink" is not going to work and, instead, we have moved towards arming our children with empowering messages around looking after themselves and their friends. Some young people are going to drink alcohol, no matter what we do, keeping them as safe as possible is vital. At the same time these messages have helped non-drinkers feel good about their choices, as well as helping those who abstain be seen as valuable and valid members of a social group.
Most importantly though, due once again to education, I believe we are seeing a major shift in parental attitudes in this area. Parents have now got the message that we must try to delay drinking for as long as we possibly can and many try their very best to do just that. It's not going to be easy and the Australian culture and our attitudes around alcohol and its role in socializing makes it even more difficult but it appears that our efforts in this area seem to be starting to pay off. Sure, there are always going to be those parents who make it even more difficult for others by trying to be their child's best friend and providing (or tolerating) alcohol at parties and gatherings, but there are growing numbers of Mums and Dads who are working hard to instil good values and attitudes in their kids and provide rules and boundaries in this area in an effort to keep their teen as safe as possible.

So let's take the time to celebrate our teens - they live in a very complex world and they're doing a pretty good job of navigating through it! We should grab the results of this survey and yell them from the rooftops because I can pretty well guarantee you they'll be something pretty miserable coming out about their mental health, links to crime rates or use of social media in the coming weeks ...

References:
Herring, R., Bayley, M. & Hurcombe, R. (2014). "But no one told me it's okay to not drink": A qualitative study of young people who drink little or no alcohol. Journal of Substance Use 19, 95-102.
White, J. (2016). Generation clean: Why many young adults choose to stay sober. New Scientist 3102, 3 December.

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