We are a nation of alcohol lovers.
You only have to look at the “funny” aisles in every card shop to see how much we joke about excessive drinking. The image to the right is only one out of thousands of examples showing our ridiculous attitude towards alcohol.
But this trivial approach to an addictive substance is starting to set a terrible example for the next generation, and we’re now facing a minor crisis of alcohol abuse in children and teens.
The governments 2016 survey of Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use in Young People in England revealed the worrying statistics that 44% of pupils between 11 and 15 have drunk alcohol at least once in their lives, with 10% reporting having drunk in the past week. That may not sound too concerning, after all it’s only a tenth or less than half who are involved with alcohol, but look at the ages. 11 to 15. At 11 you shouldn’t be thinking about alcohol and even 15 year olds deserve a longer childhood before needing to worry about the dangers of drinking. So, where’s this all come from? Why are our young people becoming active participants in the world of binge drinking? And most importantly, what can we do to slow this trend as much as possible?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I recognise that there are benefits of learning about alcohol in a safe environment before you hit legal drinking age, so that then when you can go to a bar and order a drink, you’re less likely to lose complete control. However, 11-15 seems far too young for this. Moreover, the rate of consumption in children this age is something we should all be concerned about. Government data reports that the 11 – 15 year olds surveyed had consumed an average of 9.6 units in the week beforehand. 9.6 units works out at roughly 3 large (250ml) glasses of wine or 4 pints of standard lager. It just doesn’t seem right that children who are up to 7 years away from the legal drinking age are around only 1 or 2 pints below the recommended weekly intake for women (14 units). And as if an average of 4 pints wasn’t enough, 1000 young people under the age of 15 are admitted to hospital each year with acute alcohol poisoning. This results in all needing emergency medical attention and for some that is not enough, and they die.
Alcohol abuse is dangerous at every age, with the risks of liver cirrhosis and heart disease; but the risk is so much greater for young people. Our brains continue to develop until the ages of 20-25, and alcohol abuse beforehand can lead to memory problems and learning difficulties. It’s also been reported that someone who begins drinking as a young teen will be four times more likely to have an alcohol dependency problem later in life, compared to those who wait till adulthood to start drinking.
As is the case with so many problems in modern society, social media platforms are partially to blame. It’s become too easy for us to brag about a ‘cheeky pint’ after work or fill our Instagram stories with #cocktails (which, on a side note, has 18m posts attached to that specific hashtag). We present alcohol as a staple part of our lives and so our children pick up on that. Teenagers think that alcohol abuse is the way to prove that they are grown up, because that is what we are showing them adult life looks like. It’s not just on a personal level that we’re setting the wrong example, though. Across the wider picture of global media we’re implying that people who are “cool” are those who drink, and this is across all ages. TV shows regularly show teens acting irresponsibly with alcohol, following the example set by successful noughties shows like Gossip Girl or Friday Night Lights. Even when the show doesn’t involve underage drinking, the popular character usually has a level of alcohol abuse – Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders comes to mind as a prime example. We are bombarding young people with the idea that to be popular or successful, your life must involve alcohol. With these images everywhere they turn, it’s no wonder that children and teenagers are forming the wrong relationships with alcohol, too early in their development.
All hope is not lost, as young adults are moving towards teetotalism in recent years, recognising the dangers of alcohol abuse and thereby choosing healthier lifestyles. But the culture of binge drinking is still very much alive. As the Institute for Alcohol Studies recognises, “excessive consumption is encouraged as part of facilitating group belonging in young adulthood” so we’re still associating fitting in with drinking, and in particular alcohol abuse. Psychologists and marketeers alike learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which marks ‘belonging’ as a core need for all humans. So, if we value ‘belonging’ so much, why are we intrinsically linking it to an addictive and dangerous substance? Why is this the moral we are unconsciously teaching our children about feeling comfortable, accepted and loved?
If we’ve somehow dug ourselves into a hole where our children and teens are misusing alcohol, where do we go from here? Is there a way towards a healthier mindset about alcohol for our young people? Hopefully so. DrinkAware promotes the value from parents having mature and informative conversations with their children about alcohol, recognising that “as a parent you have more influence over your child than you may realise” and meaningful conversations will lead to children developing more sensible relationships with alcohol in the future. Beyond this, schools could recognise that teens will be drawn to drinking, and make sure they are aware of the damage they’re doing by starting to drink so young. These statistics aren’t easy for anyone, so potentially by informing and educating our young people about alcohol they’ll make safer choices. Another vital thing we can do is also start celebrating sober activities and lifestyles with the same glory and acclaim that we currently give drinking, to highlight the multiple options in life available to everyone. We need to remember, alcohol doesn’t make us any more fun, successful or loved than we actually are; that’s all down to whether we have good ethics across our personal and professional lives. And surely, that’s a far better example to set our young people than the joys of 2-4-1 during Happy Hour?
By Elena Jones, Marketing Executive at One Stop Social.