With the release of the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) results we now have even more evidence that growing numbers of our young people are choosing not to drink alcohol. At the end of last year we saw the release of the data from the Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey(23,000 students from Catholic, Independent and state schools surveyed from across the country) which told a very similar story. Put simply, fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol. My favourite piece of data from the ASSAD survey is that in 1999 we had around one in ten 12-17-year-olds who had never used alcohol, but in the 2014 survey we had 1 in 3 who reported never drinking. That is a phenomenal result and a cultural shift that we should be celebrating!
This is not just an Australian phenomenon, we are seeing similar results in many parts of the world. I was in The Netherlands last year when their school data was released and their numbers are almost identical to ours, the recently-released US figures show a decline and some of the UK figures show quite dramatic reductions in alcohol use. It would appear that we are seeing a shift in attitudes towards alcohol and drinking amongst our young people. Now it’s important to make it clear that we still have significant issues with some of our teens and underage drinking. Australian data shows that although we appear to have fewer teens drinking, those that do, continue to drink in a risky way, with some research suggesting that they may even be drinking in a riskier manner than in the past.
So if there are fewer Australian teens drinking (and that certainly reflects what I see in schools across the country), why is this happening?
There has been very little research conducted on those young
people who choose not to drink and why they make this decision. Most studies have focused on how this group deals with the pressures they face to drink, particularly during adolescence, as well as examining some
of the strategies they choose to use in social situations to avoid drinking. As more young people make the decision not to drink (or at the
very least, delay their first drink or drink less), however, more research is being
conducted, particularly in university or college settings in the US, and, as a result, we
are learning more about their motivations.
Some of the more ‘traditional’ reasons given for young people not
drinking include the following:
and/or cultural prohibitions
or academic ambitions
history of alcohol misuse
liking the taste and/or effects of alcohol
at young people who drink little or no alcohol, the following influences were
good parental models – their family set boundaries around appropriate drinking behaviours and had provided them with positive role models in ‘how to drink’
seeing negative effects of alcohol on family members – as much as the family can provide good role models around sensible drinking, some young people experience the negative consequences of parents’ or other family members’ alcohol use and the problems it causes to their lives and relationships leading them to choose to abstain
seeing negative effects of alcohol on friends and others around them – friends and others drinking to excess and experiencing problems (e.g., personal harm and damaged social reputations) reinforced the decision not to drink
- financial pressures – this, of course, relates to the cost of alcohol once again, but studies suggest that this generation, in particular, have great concern in this area with growing student debt, greater job insecurity and
rising housing costs. Drinking alcohol costs money and there is evidence to suggest that some young people are opting for cheaper ways of socializing
- socializing no longer requires meeting in a pub or bar –
there are a number of studies to suggest that social media could be impacting on drinking behaviour. Traditional methods of communicating and socializing continue to be important for many, but there are now other options and young people are embracing these. So much communication is now conducted on-line and does not necessarily have to involve holding a drink in your hand in a crowded venue
- concern about on-line image – once again, this relates to social media and the fact that cameras are everywhere. If you drink to excess and do something stupid, it is now there forever. Young people are also becoming increasingly aware that employers often look into a job-seeker’s online presence – what you do on a Saturday night can have long-term implications on your future employment prospects
- increasingly diverse populations – as countries increasingly welcome newcomers from cultures
where drinking is less common, some experts believe this could be exposing young people to alternative ways of socializing that don’t necessarily have to involve alcohol
- possible ‘backlash’ to the excess of their elders – this is a particularly interesting one and is often referred to as the ‘Ab
Fab’ theory (after the TV show Absolutely Fabulous). It suggests that young people are choosing not to partake, essentially bucking the trends of their parents (the teens of the 90s) who were drinking to excess and experimenting with illicit drugs
Secondly, you can’t underestimate the impact of education in this area. We now have a much better idea of ‘what works’ in school-based drug education drug education around alcohol. Simply saying “don’t drink” is not going to work and, instead, we have moved towards arming our children with empowering messages around looking after themselves and their friends. Some young people are going to drink alcohol, no matter what we do, keeping them as safe as possible is vital. At the same time these messages have helped non-drinkers feel good about their choices, as well as helping those who abstain be seen as valuable and valid members of a social group.
So let’s take the time to celebrate our teens – they live in a very complex world and they’re doing a pretty good job of navigating through it! We should grab the results of this survey and yell them from the rooftops because I can pretty well guarantee you they’ll be something pretty miserable coming out about their mental health, links to crime rates or use of social media in the coming weeks …
Herring, R., Bayley, M. & Hurcombe,
R. (2014). “But no one told me it’s okay to not drink”: A qualitative
study of young people who drink little or no alcohol. Journal of Substance
Use 19, 95-102.
Generation clean: Why many young adults choose to stay sober. New Scientist 3102, 3 December.