These days I suspect most of us will take good news anywhere we can find it. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report a positive development for teen health:
During 1991–2007, the prevalence of current drinking among high school students declined significantly, from 50.8% (1991) to 44.7% (2007), and then significantly declined to 32.8% in 2015. The prevalence of binge drinking increased from 31.3% in 1991 to 31.5% in 1999, and then significantly declined to 17.7% in 2015.
Data from the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (“a cross-sectional, biennial school-based survey of 9th–12th grade students in U.S. public and private schools that monitors the prevalence of health risk behaviors) does reveal a bit of bad news, as Abigail Abrams gently informs us:
Despite the overall decrease, researchers say binge drinking is still a problem. Of those teens who reported drinking, 57.8% said they had five drinks in a row, and 43.8% said they had drunk at least eight drinks in one sitting.
Ben Schmitt provides a local perspective:
Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehab, said he’s encouraged by the statistics but cautioned that teen drinking is still a widespread problem.
The binge drinking numbers make sense, he said, because most teens who drink are trying to get drunk.
“Kids don’t social drink,” said Capretto, who is an addiction psychiatrist.
He said the opioid epidemic is bringing attention to all forms of substance abuse.
“Parents are scared, and for good reason,” Capretto said. “Pediatricians are also more in tune and screening for drug and alcohol problems. But I’d like to see the numbers get even better. This is still a significant, public health issue.”
Maybe parents and pediatricians are starting to deliver the message about drinking more effectively to our teenagers. Dennis Thompson cites another reason why drinking is down:
Laws that hold parents responsible for the consequences of underage drinking in their homes also have played a large part in cutting down high school drinking, said Marcia Lee Taylor, president and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
“If teens are drinking in their home, [parents] can be held liable,” Taylor said. “The social hosting laws are really making parents understand the consequences, and they’re not allowing that to happen as much anymore.”
Despite this, adults appear to still be a major source of alcohol for teenage drinkers. In 2015, 56 percent of current high school drinkers and 36 percent of binge drinkers usually got their alcohol from someone who gave it to them, researchers found.
Binge drinkers were more than three times more likely than students who do not binge drink to give someone money to purchase alcohol (31 percent compared with 9 percent) and to purchase alcohol themselves (9 percent compared to 3 percent).
The road to drinking problems often begins at home. Robert Jimison has some words of wisdom for parents:
At home, how parents consume and treat alcohol can play a big role in the child’s tendency to drink. “Of course kids will always do what they’re watching as opposed to what you’re telling them,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell Medical College, says. “If you’re telling them not to drink, but you regularly tie one on, that won’t work, period.”
Saltz notes that the right time to talk about alcohol with a child depends on the community you live in. “I do think that you probably have to start having this conversation by the beginning of high school, but that could be different in some areas. You have to know your community. That may even be a middle school conversation depending on what kids are doing and how fast the crowd is moving,” she said.
What happens when those conversations don’t happen? Brewer notes that binge drinking in high school can indicate heavier drinking down the road. “People who start at a younger age often persist in that behavior when they go on to college and beyond that,” said Brewer.
There are some topics that simply intimidate some parents, making conversations about alcohol or sex or friends uncomfortably difficult. You’ll never find out what your kids know and don’t know if you don’t ask them, face-to-face, yourselves. You don’t have to scare them on purpose; the truth is scary enough.