How To Manage Teen Drinking (The Smart Way)

The saga of the First Twins is fated to play on a while longer, now that Jenna Bush, 19, has decided to fight charges that she tried to buy liquor with someone else’s ID at an Austin restaurant last month. Caught with a margarita at the same haunt, her sister Barbara pleaded no contest last week and will do eight hours of community service. While the President and his wife quietly grappled with how to manage their wayward children (it’s Jenna’s second citation), baby-boomer parents across the country had to wonder: If the First Daughters could get into this kind of trouble with the press and public and even the Secret Service looking on, what might their own kids–living their lives outside such a bright circle of scrutiny–be up to? Chances are good that they’re drinking too. Half the students age 10 to 24 questioned in a 1999 study by the Centers for Disease Control said they had consumed alcohol in the preceding month. Boomer parents ought not to be too shocked. They whooped it up considerably more in their youths, according to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism records that document how, across every age group, we’ve become an ever more sober society over the past two decades. In 1979, nearly 50% of 12- to 17- year-olds reported that they drank at some time in the previous month; now that figure is barely 20%. For kids 18 to 25, the stats fell from 75% to 60%. Still, the persistence of youthful drinking is forcing a new generation of parents to confront the dangers alcohol poses to their children and to contemplate the quandary of how to protect against the worst excesses.

Often it is college administrators who have to deal directly with the most reckless imbibing. In studies through the 1990s by the Harvard School of Public Health, the percentage of college students who reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks remained steady at 44%. (Binging was defined as five drinks in a row for boys and four for girls.) In an age in which campus officials are increasingly seen as proxy parents, this is worrying to them. Legal liability is of particular concern, especially after M.I.T. last year chose to avoid a lawsuit by paying out $6 million to the parents of a freshman who in 1997 drank himself to death at a fraternity initiation.

One approach to reckless imbibing gaining currency among college administrators is unconventional and even counterintuitive. It argues for accepting that college-age kids are going to drink and for encouraging them to do so safely. Some campus officials recommend bowing to reality and lowering the drinking age, as 29 states did in the early ’70s. By 1988, in response to the national mood against drunk driving and a threat by the Federal Government to cut off highway funding, every state had a minimum drinking age of 21.

Researchers at the University of Michigan who studied the effects of the increase in the drinking age found that states on average reduced drinking among high school seniors 13.3%. The change also contributed to a 58% drop in alcohol-related auto deaths among 15- to 20-year-olds since 1982. A small chorus of university leaders believe, however, that the higher drinking age has in some ways made drinking more dangerous.

When drinking is legal, they argue, it takes place in the open, where it can be supervised by police, security guards and even health-care workers. When the drinking age went up, the spigot wasn’t turned off, it was simply moved underground–to homes or cars or frat-house basements–where no adult could keep an eye on things. When kids who are drinking on the sly do venture out, they often “pre-load” first, fueling up on as much alcohol as they can hold before the evening begins so that the buzz lasts as long as possible. As for the reduction in traffic fatalities? Skeptics believe it may have less to do with changing the drinking age than with the new mores about drunk driving and the more aggressive enforcement of DUI laws.

Doubtful about the value of the 21-year-old limit, administrators at Middlebury College in Vermont recently calculated how much federal highway money the state would lose were it to reduce the legal age to 18. Middlebury officials wanted to see if the school could afford to make up the difference. It couldn’t (the figure was about $12.5 million last year), and the proposal died. But the idea didn’t.

“The 21-year drinking age has not reduced drinking on campuses, it has probably increased it,” says Middlebury president John McCardell. “Society expects us to graduate students who have been educated to drink responsibly. But society has severely circumscribed our ability to do that.”

Other college administrators share McCardell’s frustration. “If there were an 18- or 19-year-old drinking age, we could address the issues more favorably,” says Dartmouth College President James Wright. As it is, “we can’t go around sniffing students’ breath or smelling their cups.” Despite their complaints, college heads have been disinclined to make a public case for lowering the drinking age, knowing how controversial that would be. Meanwhile, on a number of campuses, administrators are employing what turns out to be a remarkably powerful tool to curb excessive drinking: simple information. When college students are asked how much drinking takes place on their campuses, they almost always guess too high. In a 1996 survey at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, students said their peers were drinking five times a week. In truth, the answer was twice a week. In a different study, kids at 100 other campuses made similarly inflated estimates.

Hobart and Smith sociology professor H. Wesley Perkins, who conducted the 1996 study, was intrigued by these findings. If teenagers–conformers by temperament–believe drinking is rampant on campus, might they be more inclined to pick up the habit? If on the other hand, they knew that the heavy drinkers were not in the majority, might moderation suddenly seem more attractive?

In 1997 Hobart and William Smith spent about $2,000 to find out. With the help of posters and newspaper ads, college officials publicized the fact that a majority of students on campus drank twice a week or less, that the majority of seniors consumed four or fewer drinks at parties, and that three-quarters of the alcohol on campus was consumed by just one-third of the students. The same messages popped up as screen savers on university computers.

Over the first two years, the university measured a 21% drop in high-risk drinking, which is imbibing five or more drinks in a sitting on a weekly basis.”That’s a massive reduction when nationally those levels were flat or increasing slightly,” says Perkins. The incidence of missed classes, unprotected sex, property damage and liquor-law violations also decreased.

The program, which has been dubbed the “social-norms” approach, is in effect at a number of other colleges–with similarly sparkling results. Northern Illinois University has seen a 44% reduction in binge drinking, Western Washington University is down 20% and the University of Missouri-Columbia is down 18%. One limitation to any college-based program is that many kids are arriving on campus with drinking problems. Fully half of binge drinkers do not wait for the freedom of college before they begin elbow bending in earnest; they start while they’re still at home. “Colleges are inheriting behaviors learned in high school,” says social psychologist Henry Wechsler, who heads Harvard’s study on drinking among young people.

Precollege drinking is especially worrisome given a central finding of recent alcohol research. Dr. Hoover Adger, professor and pediatrician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., has found that children who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to be alcohol dependent as adults. According to other studies, kids who start drinking early are also 10 times likelier to be involved in a fight after consuming alcohol, seven times likelier to be involved in a car accident and 12 times likelier to be injured. “Clearly, there is a huge benefit to delaying the first drink,” says Adger.

But how on earth do you do that? Various surveys have shown that determined minors have a relatively easy time getting their hands on liquor, even if it’s not kept in their own homes. They find adults who will buy it for them, or they use fake IDs, which today are widely available on the Internet.

Brenda Conlan and Jeffrey Wolfsberg, recovering alcoholics who founded Lifestyle Risk Reduction, which runs alcohol-education workshops for high schoolers and their parents, have made an informal study of nondrinkers and what keeps them sober. The most consistent nondrinkers, they’ve found, had unusually sound relationships with their parents, fearing less their discipline than the idea of disappointing them. “They have a relationship that means something to them,” Conlan says.

Other researchers are confirming the primacy of the parent in keeping kids off alcohol. “If you look at two subsets,” says Adger, “young people with good parental monitoring and those without, the difference in alcohol use is staggering.” Among kids whose parents stay on top of their behavior, only about 10% drink at all, never mind drinking excessively, he says. That may seem an obvious finding. Still, it’s reassuring to know that such a commonsense approach can yield such extraordinary results.

–Reported by Amanda Bower, Daren Fonda, Andrew Goldstein and Alice Park/New York, Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles and Maggie Sieger/Chicago

See time.com for the stories of five underage members of Alcoholics Anonymous

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