New Trends in Preteen and Teen Alcohol Use

Disturbing new information about alcohol use among preteens and teens has been released. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published federal data showing that 27.6% of 12- to 20-year-olds in the United States drank alcohol during the past month. That means that over one-quarter of American children are engaging in illegal, underage drinking. Even worse, the 2009 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), which is conducted annually by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), reported dramatic year-over-year spikes in drug use. The survey showed that past-month alcohol use was up 11 percent, past-year use of marijuana was up 19 percent, and past-year ecstasy use was up 67 percent among students in grades 9-12. These increases are especially concerning since most alcoholics start drinking during their teen years.

Despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that parents have the most influence on whether their children engage in alcohol and drug use, parents are not using their influence well. The PATS survey captured a growing attitude by American youth that drug use and drinking is acceptable. Youth are almost as likely to get information on drugs from the Internet as from their parents or school. About 20 percent of the parents surveyed by PATS believed that their children had gone beyond the experimental phase in use of alcohol or other drugs. However, almost half of these parents either did not take any action or waited up to a year to address the perceived problem.

Perhaps because of these new trends, the American Academy of Pediatricians has recommended that doctors screen all of their patients in middle and high school for alcohol use.

The PATS study also indicates that youth are starting to drink at a younger age with about 10 percent of nine-year-olds reporting they had consumed more than a sip of alcohol. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) reports that one-third of children, ages 12 to 17, had their first drink before 13. Very young drinkers are becoming a major concern. Unfortunately, this trend will have serious consequences in the future since research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicates that children who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to have drinking problems than those who start drinking at age 21 or later.

Interestingly, a recent research study conducted at Dartmouth Medical School determined that children whose parents allow them to watch R-rated movies are more likely to drink alcohol than their peers. The numbers demonstrate a startling cause and effect relationship: 24.4 percent of middle-school students allowed to watch R-rated movies all the time had used alcohol, 18.8 percent among those who were allowed to watch R movies sometimes, 12.5 percent among those allowed to watch R-rated films occasionally, and 2.9 percent among youths who parents never permitted them to watch such movies.

The message from this research all points to early and continued involvement from parents. To that end, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has developed two helpful resources for parents. The first one is Time to Talk,, which provides easy-to-use guides and tips to help you have ongoing conversations with your kids to keep them healthy and drug-free. The other program is called Time to Act,, which is a step-by-step online resource for parents and caregivers who suspect or know their child is experimenting, using or has a problem with alcohol or drugs.

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