Some parents breathe a sign of relief when they find their child is “just” drinking alcohol and not using drugs, but it is a myth that alcohol is a “better” drug. Alcohol abuse, drunk driving, and alcohol-related diseases take a major toll on our society, and children who begin drinking at a young age are at much higher risk of developing problems.
Alcohol is by far the drug of choice among adolescents. It is the most used and abused mood-altering substance among pre-teens and teenaged children. Although some teens report it is easier to get illegal drugs than buy alcohol, the overall social acceptability of alcohol and the pervasive advertising that suggests alcohol creates a positive and rewarding experience often leads both teens and their parents to think drinking is simply a rite of passage with little danger over the long run. Some studies suggest that there could be as many as four million alcoholics under the age of 18, three years younger than the legal drinking age. The age when children begin drinking alcohol has decreased over the last few decades. Many children are already experimenting with alcohol in the fifth grade, many more than were just 10 years ago when teens were more likely to start drinking in eighth or ninth grade. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40% of ninth-graders report that they tried alcohol before the age of 13 and had used alcohol within the past month.
One of the more dire consequences of this increase in drinking among children still in elementary school is the that it has a greater effect on cognitive development at this young age. Students who use alcohol remember much less of their academic work than those who do not use alcohol. Also, statistics clearly show that the younger a child is when he or she begins drinking, the more likely they are to develop problems with alcohol as adults. According to a report in the Journal of Substance Abuse, more than 40% of individuals who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse problems later in life (Grant, BF, & Dawson, DA. 9:103-110, 1997).
Some major factors that influence a child’s decision to begin drinking are: the number of peers within their immediate environment who have started to drink, the number of adults they have regular contact with who have an alcohol problem, and the amount of the time the child is alone in the home (limited supervision). Exposure to alcohol advertising also influences children by creating a positive attitude toward alcohol use. If children view alcohol in a positive light, they are more likely to drink at a younger age. Children who start drinking at a young age are more likely to experiment later with illegal drugs. Yet, many children report that although they learn early on about the dangers of drugs, many do not learn about the dangers of drinking alcohol (The Weekly Reader National Survey on Drugs and Alcohol. Middleton, CT: Field Publications, 1995)
What keeps children alcohol-free? Children who have strong communication with their parents are less likely to drink. Children whose parents set clear rules and expectations are less likely to use alcohol. Children whose parents discipline them when they break the rules are also less likely to use alcohol.