This week we learned some hard facts about teen drug and alcohol consumption when Western Australia released its figures for the Australian School Students Alcohol and Drug Survey. Teens, especially girls, are drinking alcohol at damaging levels.
More than a quarter of students aged 12-17 had drunk alcohol in the past week. More than a quarter of the boys aged 14-17 who had drunk in the past week had done so at dangerous levels: 7 or more drinks in a day.
The figure was even worse for the girls. Nearly a third of those aged 14-17 who had drunk in the last week had reached dangerous levels: 5 or more drinks in a day (the limit is lower because of physical differences).
The greatest binge drinkers? 17-year-old girls.
These figures are heartbreaking. To me, they tell a story of the pain teen girls are seeking an escape from, and the pressures they face to be sexy, grown-up, uninhibited. They have a false belief that drinking alcohol is empowering, when in fact it’s a train crash waiting to happen. Alcohol companies continue to push “alcopops”, and hotels offer mixed drinks aimed at young women, such as champagne and Red Bull.
But retailers may not be the greatest problem: almost half of the students who drank in the past week got the alcohol from their mother or father.
From my work in schools, I believe that these WA figures are a good picture of what is going on all around the country. Lucy, a 16-year-old student in NSW, told me how obsessed the girls in her year at school were about the alcohol they were going to drink at a party one weekend.
They all made bets on who was going to out-drink who, and who was going to get drunk enough to hook up with random people.
One girl was asking for advice on what drinks she could mix together to get herself “smashed” quicker, and another was bragging about her mum buying her alcohol to take to the party.
No doubt some of the parents who supply their children with alcohol are just plain negligent, but I’m betting many are parents who show great care and concern about other aspects of their children’s lives. They probably taught them to always buckle their seat belt, never talk to strangers and always wear their bike helmet. They probably worry about their kids’ safety getting to and from school, their marks and finding the right career. It just so happens that they also believe old (and dangerous) myths about teenagers and drinking. Some of the arguments I’ve heard:
They’re going to drink alcohol anyway. It’s safer if they do it at home where I can keep an eye on them.
Kids need to learn now how to handle their alcohol so they don’t get in trouble with it later on.
Alcohol isn’t as harmful as other drugs.
If I don’t let them drink, they might do something worse.
It is my great hope that if all parents understand the truth about under-age drinking, we will finally be free of these myths.
There is no such thing as safe teen drinking. It is never okay to supply under-age kids with alcohol or tolerate under-age drinking. And this is why:
Grow a brain. The brain keeps maturing until around 20 years of age. Less alcohol is needed to cause damage to a teenager’s brain than an adult’s, and the damage takes place much faster. The damage can permanently alter the brain. A teenage drinker is more likely to suffer falling marks at school. As an adult, she may be stuck with memory problems, learning difficulties, poor verbal skills, depression and a tendency to addiction.
Have no regrets. A teenager’s brain is also not yet fully developed for reasoning or thinking about consequences; it is far more finely tuned to respond to situations emotionally. Combine this with alcohol and you truly have a worrying cocktail. Many girls regret decisions they have made and embarrassing things they have done while under the influence.
Stay safe. Drinking makes teen girls feel invincible, but they are actually far more at risk when they are intoxicated. Their judgment is compromised; their reflexes are slowed; they are physically awkward. They are at greater risk of violent and sexual assaults. I am not blaming the victim: it is never her fault. But being drunk does make girls easier targets, as predators look for vulnerability.
Stay healthy. Drugs such as amphetamines and heroin are not the only threat to the health of our kids. Each year, more than 260 young Australians die from risky drinking behaviour. Binge drinking can lead to acute toxicity that at the best requires hospitalisation and at worse leads to death. Alcohol increases the risk of injuries from falls and road accidents, and in the long term increases the risk of stroke, breast cancer and liver disease.
Delay now, or pay the price later. There is no benefit in “teaching” kids how to handle their alcohol. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home, it normalises drinking and lowers the children’s inhibitions to drink. Studies also show that delaying a person’s introduction to alcohol lowers their risk of developing long-term problems with drinking.
As parents, we need to take responsibility for our kids’ drinking. A study conducted by St Peter’s Collegiate Girl’s School, in Adelaide, showed that girls actually want enforced curfews and they do not want parents to turn a blind eye to teen drinking. Teenagers crave boundaries and limits, because the pressure is then taken off them to make all the decisions.
So let’s set boundaries. Let’s set good examples. Let’s talk with our teenage kids openly and honestly about alcohol. And offer them things to do on the weekend that are way more fun than getting wasted.