Let’s get smashed – a South Australian perspective on teen drinking

Guest post written by Enlighten Eduaction’s Program Manager for South Australia, Jane Higgins.

What is really happening to our young people when they drink themselves into unconsciousness? Why do they feel the need to do this? What is missing from their lives?

According to recent media headlines, youth binge drinking has risen to epidemic proportions. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Director Penny Allbon, has reported that 9% of South Australian  adolescents (some 11,000 young people aged 14-19) are drinking alcohol at risky levels.

 one in five 16 -17 yr olds binge drinks weekly (1)
 44%, 12 yr olds have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months (2)
 24% of young people have used cannabis, 9% ecstasy and 8% amphetamines (3) and
 25% of deaths in this age group are related to alcohol (4).

It begs the question, what is being lost every week? Not just the many brain cells or lives, but the self esteem, the sense of self-worth, and the contributions these young people could be making to their own lives and the lives of others.

In Australia drinking is a significant part of every rite of passage. The ABC program 4 Corners (9-6-08) presented a segment called “On the Piss”. A young woman profiled articulated it beautifully when she said “What’s a wedding without booze? What’s a funeral without booze?” getting drunk is indeed a national pastime. It highlighted how young people are finding it incredibly difficult not to drink as alcohol surrounds them at every event they go to, and is a major element in the life of everyone they are connected to. The excellent new anti-drinking campaign “Drink Wise”, launched by the Australian Government, also challenges us to rethink this “booze goes with everything” approach.  

While alcohol has become part of every event we celebrate, drinking also occurs even when there is no  celebration, no milestone being marked. Some of today’s youth are drinking way beyond the glass of champagne or stubbie of beer at a friend’s birthday. They are regularly consuming a bottle of vodka in a session and then teaming it up with a caffeine loaded drinks such as Red Bull or V to make sure that when they are really drunk they are also really buzzed too. In a recent study of 4,271 University Students in the USA, they found mixing caffeine and alcohol resulted in the students being twice as likely to:

 be hurt and require medical attention
 travel with a drunk driver
 be at risk of being taken advantage of sexually.

I find these statistics very, very concerning. But sadly, not surprising.

What did surprise me was another article published in The Sunday Mail (9-6-08) on how being drunk and posting the antics on My Space, Facebook or YouTube has now become an instant means of gaining celebrity status for some young people. I personally don’t find anything glamorous about having vomit all over oneself, or having to spend the night in hospital from an injury caused by drunkenness, let alone knowing that those pictures are out in cyber space for all to see! This trend has particular implications for young women for as we have seen in the media, society is generally less forgiving of vision of the fallen woman – I cannot imagine headlines screaming about a male actor getting drunk and passing out in quite the same way they do when it is a Britney or a Paris. 

The Sunday Mail also visited Hindley Street to obtain a snap shot of what is really going on there on a Saturday night. Their video, Adelaide’s Binge Drinking Shame, can be viewed at

We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend this issue is not real. What is motivating this epidemic, and how do we protect our kids from doing so much harm to themselves and other people?

I don’t profess to have all the answers. However, my experiences as a mother, counsellor and as a senior presenter with Enlighten Education all lead me to conclude that we must strengthen our children’s sense of themselves, and educate them. We must teach them how to respond thoughtfully and authentically when they are faced with a decision about whether to bow to peer, and media, pressure. We must develop in them a deep sense of knowing what is really healthy and right for them. We must love them deeply too, and give them a strong sense of their uniqueness, beauty and purpose in the world.

Sanctions will only work up onto a point: we can limit the hours bars are open, tax alcohol, and ban alcopops, but in the end what do we really want? We want them to make safe and healthy choices for themselves and the only way of doing this is by teaching them to love themselves and showing them that they are indeed incredibly precious.

I favour a proactive appraoch. If our young people are personally fulfilled they will make better choices and limit the harm they do to themselves and others.

And binge drinking will no longer be needed to fill an empty void.

1. “Supporting Families of Young People with Problematic Drug Use”, 2008 released by the Government’s Advisory Body, The National Council On Drugs.
2. V. White, J. Hayman ‘Australian secondary school students’ use of alcohol in 2005 Report’ June 2006, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at The Cancer Council Victoria
3. Teen Health, 2007 Vol 257 Issues in Society – Spinney Press
4. Professor John Toumbourou – Deakin University

P.S Danni’s previous post, “Getting trashed is so hot right now“, also offers some powerful insights into teen drinking and links to some really helpful resources.

9 thoughts on “Let’s get smashed – a South Australian perspective on teen drinking

  1. Selena says:

    Great piece Jane, an honest appraisal. It’s disturbing and sad. How long has it been (in decades) since it was NOT cool to be drunk for teenagers?

  2. Sonia Lyne says:

    Jane I agree that we cannot bury our heads in the sand. It has always been “cool” to get drunk as many Australians will tell you but this doesn’t make it o.k.. If we continue to view teenage drinking in this way then history will continue to repeat it itself and escalate out of control. There is enough evidence to support that it is getting worse with each generation and this should be evidence enough for many to stop using that same old line … “I did it when I was a kid … and it didn’t hurt me.” Hogwash !!! Many seem to (choose) to forget those incidences that left them vulnerable, ashamed or hurt.

  3. Danni Miller says:

    Brilliantly put Sonia! I for one look back at some of the situations I placed myself in when I was a drunk teen and cannot help but think it was just blind luck that kept me from being seriously hurt! I want us to strive for more for each generation – not accept less as there is a historical precedent for harm!

  4. Dorothy Stahlnecker says:

    This is such an important wake up call..I have to print and send this around. I have two granddaughters 19 and 20 who think you have to drink to have fun…note the ages it’s even illegal in this state. My daughter has fought, ended up checking into teen parties where many parents seem to think if you spend the night (they take the car keys) the kids should be able to do it. Where do their attitudes come from? Anyway try though we may and we continue. It is a problem. I hope I am able to have both my granddaughters and my grandson who is 13 read and think about this information. Again, I wouldn’t mind this going to my site as Danni has done before…We’re doing a new page and we issues we’re dealing with however, this would be great….

    Thank you so much..I’ve been sick with cancer since December so I’m just getting back to normal (just finished 6 months of chemo) and glad to be reading Danni again..

    Dorothy from grammology
    remember to hug your gram

  5. Kelly Valder says:

    Jane, the ‘Lets get smashed’ mentality is common here in NZ too.
    The Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand recently launched a hard-hitting advertising campaign.
    Their message is ‘It’s not the drinking. It’s how we’re drinking’
    Sadly, it is so true.

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