Pregnancy and child

Teen drinking linked to parents' habits

A survey has revealed that “children who see their parents drunk are twice as likely to regularly get drunk themselves,” reported BBC News. Several newspapers also covered this news story.

The reports are of a survey conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity that funds a nationwide research and development programme aimed at better understanding the UK’s social problems and how these can be overcome. As one of its research projects, the foundation conducted this study, published today, which explored the relationship that young people in the UK have with alcohol, and the factors that influence their drinking habits.

The report, called “Young people, alcohol and influences”, presents the findings of a survey of 5,700 teenagers aged 13–14 years old (year 9) and 15–16 (year 11) in schools in England. The study gathered information on the students’ drinking patterns and looked into the wide range of factors that can influence them, such as family, media and the area in which they live. The researcher wanted to get a better understanding of the relative importance of these factors when considering how best to tackle drinking in young people.

What did the report find?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation conducted the report with two main aims:

  • to examine the circumstances surrounding a young person’s first drink, and to look at their current drinking patterns, including the amount consumed and experiences of drunkenness
  • to improve understanding of what really influences a young person’s drinking pattern by identifying the factors that most strongly influence their behaviour

The key findings of the report were:

  • 70% of year 9 students and 89% of year 11 students had had an alcoholic drink, but regular drinking was more common among year 11 students than those in year 9.
  • The most common age for having a first alcoholic drink was 12–13 years old, and this usually took place in the presence of an adult and when celebrating a special occasion.
  • Drinking more frequently was most likely:
    − if the teen received less supervision from a parent or other close adult
    − if they spent more than two evenings a week with friends, especially if these friends drank
    − if they were exposed to a close family member, especially a parent, whom they saw drinking or getting drunk
    − if they thought positively about drinking and its effects
    − if alcohol was easily accessible
  • The report also found that while friends clearly play an important influential role, family has a direct effect on teens’ behaviour. Parents or guardians are often involved in a child’s first experience of alcohol, exposing them to drunkenness, and are responsible for the amount of supervision a teenager is given (such as knowing where they are on evenings when they are away from home).

How much are young people drinking?

As indicated above, the majority of teens in years 9 and 11 had had at least one alcoholic drink. In the lower school year, girls were more likely to have had a drink than boys, though the gap closed by the later school year.

Of year 9 students who reported ever drinking alcohol:

  • 47% drank at least once a month
  • 20% drank every week
  • 27% had had a drink in the week before the survey
  • 47% had one or two drinks the last time they drank

Of year 11 students who drank alcohol:

  • 72% drank at least once a month
  • 39% drank every week
  • 49% had had a drink in the week before the survey
  • 25% had six or more drinks the last time they drank

In year 9, 39% of those who drank alcohol in the past week had consumed seven units or more, while in year 11 the same proportion drank 14 units or more. Just over half (54%) of the year 9 teens who had ever had an alcoholic drink reported that they had also been drunk on one or more occasions. Of year 11 drinkers, 79% had ever been drunk, with 52% reporting they had been drunk more than once. Of those who reported ever being drunk, 47% of year 9 and 66% of year 11 students said that they drink with their friends at least once a month with the primary aim of getting drunk.

What are they drinking?

The report found that year 9 students were most likely to drink alcopops (26% of drinks consumed) or beer or lager (29%), followed by spirits or liqueurs (22%), cider (13%) and wine or similar drinks (10%).

Year 11 students were most likely to drink beer or lager (35%), spirits or liqueurs (25%), followed by alcopops (17%), cider (12%) and wine (11%).

In both year groups, the survey found that those who drank beer and lager drank greater quantities than teens who drank other types of alcoholic drink.

What influences teens to drink?

Though family drinking habits and witnessing drunkenness among family members had a strong influence on drinking, the strongest influence on drinking was having friends who drank.

About 75% reported being with an adult when they drank for the first time. However, while both year groups were most likely to have been drinking at home the last time they drank, the proportion was smaller in the older group: 43% of year 9 students were with parents or siblings when they last drank, compared to 34% of year 11 students, who were more likely to have had their last drink with friends (23% compared to 13% in year 9). The less parental or adult supervision that a teen had (for example, parents not knowing where they were on a Saturday night), the more likely they were to have a drink.

For those teens who had not had a drink, lack of interest in alcohol was the main factor identified. A young person’s religion, ethnicity and family values were also likely to predict whether the teen had had a drink.

The main influences of “current” drinking (drinking in the past week) were:

  • age: the younger a person was when they had their first drink, the more likely they were to have been drinking in the past week
  • expecting positive outcomes from drinking
  • most (rather than some or a few) of a young person’s friends also drinking
  • frequency of drinking in the family: a young person was more likely to be a current drinker if at least one member of their family drank each week
  • the circumstances of their first drink: those introduced to alcohol at a family celebration were less likely to be current drinkers, which the report says indicates some degree of family monitoring or supervision
  • easy access to alcohol

Similar factors influence current excessive drinking, with friends’ levels of drinking having the strongest influence. The risk of excessive drinking increases the more time the person spends with their friends. It is also affected by the age of the friends, with older friends or siblings influencing how easily teenagers could access alcohol. Factors affecting teens’ drunkenness are similar, though being extremely young when they had their first drink (under 6 years old) and witnessing family drunkenness had a very strong influence.

The report says that a young person has about double the odds of getting drunk multiple times if they have ever witnessed their parents drunk, compared with never seeing this (odds ratio 1.88, no confidence interval given).

What does the report conclude?

This report concludes that, though drinking among young people is not inevitable, a large proportion of teenagers do drink alcohol. The researchers consider that there is little benefit from policies aiming to prevent young people from trying alcohol, but that they should instead focus on preventing immediate and longer-term effects of drinking alcohol.

The report highlights the strongest influences on current, excessive and risky drinking, and says that the new government alcohol strategy offers the opportunity to set out a strong central policy and give a clear message to parents, local policy-makers and frontline services. The authors suggest that the best way of improving drinking behaviour could be to support and educate parents, giving them positive messages about how they can influence their child’s behaviour. They also stress the importance of the parents' own drinking and how this affects their child’s perception of alcohol. Schools can also play an important role in challenging incorrect perceptions about the frequency and scale of heavy drinking among young people, providing information and getting targeted messages to parents.

Where can teens and parents find out more?

Live well: drinking and alcohol

Alcohol Concern: supporting problem drinking parents

Alcohol Concern: making sense of alcohol

NHS Attribution