Real Life

15 October 2019

Teenagers and alcohol – global pressures and home truths

What's the Harm? campaign

What’s the right thing to do when it comes to children and alcohol? It’s a question which has perplexed countless parents over the years – myself included.

We all want the best for our children, and this is a topic Balance and partners are working to get to grips with in the North East. On Tuesday 15 Oct, around 130 professionals – many of them parents themselves – will be gathering in Newcastle to explore how we can reduce the potential harm alcohol presents to our children.

So amid headlines that this is generation sensible, what do we really know? What pressures are they under? And are our efforts as parents to help children handle alcohol helping them or teaching them to drink?

There’s bad and good news. Teenagers are still experiencing too much alcohol-related harm, but the figures do point to a generation that is less alcohol-focused than their parents. It often surprises people that our heaviest drinkers are now aged 45-54 rather than teenagers or 20somethings.

From talking to parents, what has struck us has been the lack of any information out there to help them talk to their children and provide evidence-based advice about alcohol.  Most parents are unaware, for example, that health experts advise its best for children not to drink before the age of 18 – and certainly never before they turn 15. It means that those vital conversations that are taking place in families around smoking, drugs and contraception, where advice is given and boundaries set, are just not happening for alcohol. And where they are happening, they may be ill-informed.

And so we become more likely to recall our own experiences to pass down to our children, which all-too-often rely on hazy memories of illicit cans drunk in parks. ‘We drank when we were kids and we’re fine – so what’s the problem?’, and ‘it’s unrealistic that our kids could get through childhood without booze.’ Well we’re not fine because our region has the highest alcohol death and hospital admission rates in England – and most of our kids are choosing not to drink.

A pervading myth is that the French know best by providing small amounts of alcohol to help children better handle it, but what most don’t realise is that France has had twice the rate of alcohol dependency than the UK. We hear of children being offered drinks they don’t particularly want and groups of 10 year olds being given a birthday party cider all with the same good intentions

We know that 9/10 children aged 11-15 in our region don’t drink regularly and that fewer older teenagers aged 16-17 are regularly binge drinking than they were back in 2002. Numerous reasons may explain why teenagers and younger adults have less of a taste for it, from gym-toned social media profiles to use of smartphones to money pressures. Our own insight suggests teenagers can find it embarrassing or worrying seeing their own parents drinking to excess. Changing demographics come into the equation as well.

This might feel like progress, but the flipside should cause concern. 1 in 10 pupils aged 11-15 are still drinking regularly and estimates suggest over 12,000 pupils in the North East have been drunk in the last month. Our alcohol-specific hospital admissions are the worst in the country and almost twice as high as the England rate. Our region has a drink problem and children are affected.

There are global alcohol pressures which reach right into the inner sanctum of a typical teenager. Just like for gambling, recent scandals have exposed dubious social media advertising by the alcohol industry to get messages onto the platforms our children view, such as Instagram, paying “influencers” to position their product as cool. 14 year olds tell us that their friends promote boozy sessions or “seshes” on their own social media pages featuring pictures of friends passing out surrounded by vodka bottles or being sick. And increasingly the impact of sports sponsorship in fuelling underage drinking is coming under scrutiny, with calls globally for it to be banned just like it was for tobacco. To teenagers, alcohol is everywhere.

We would argue more restrictions on the alcohol industry are needed, but we should also remember the positive impact that the family home can have. Parents can play a vital role in setting boundaries and filling this information void was one of the reasons Balance developed our What’s the Harm campaign (whatstheharm.co.uk). Most parents have been open to the message, with nearly half seeing it saying it has changed their minds about the age children should be allowed alcohol.

There are some home truths we might not like to hear but we should face. Children who live with parents who drink alcohol regularly are more likely to drink themselves, and most of the alcohol children drink comes from the family home. And it is among more affluent families where it is more likely that a child is starting to drink.

None of us like to think that our child could be the one being brought home in a police car or blue-lighted to hospital, or experimented with drugs or tobacco after a drinking session, but is it is the reality for thousands of children.

Alcohol causes cancer and is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK and there is growing awareness of how it can compound mental health problems. For children, it can affect the developing brain and impact on their education. Young drinkers are more likely to take other risks, such as smoke or take other illegal drugs. In short, we know more about alcohol’s harms now and we should act accordingly.

We all want the best for our children and grandchildren and the time has come to stop assuming that ‘best’ involves introducing them to alcohol. The longer we can delay it the better. Whisper it, but your children may choose to join those increasing numbers of adults who are choosing not to drink alcohol at all.

Most parents are unaware, for example, that health experts advise its best for children not to drink before the age of 18 – and certainly never before they turn 15.