Not a week goes by without a headline about teenage drinking, or a young life blighted by drink. Kids turning up to school drunk. Hospitals overrun at weekends, arrests, deaths. Teenage drinking seems to be a huge problem. But is it?
The numbers are surprising
Underage drinking is actually falling in the UK, as well as in many other parts of the world. Even though they are falling, the numbers can be shocking.
44 per cent of children aged 11 to 15 in 2016 had drunk alcohol at least once. The number increases with age. That means nearly half of children at high school have tried a drink. By the time they get to 15 years old, nearly three quarters have tried a drink.
In Scotland, the numbers are lower. 28 per cent of 13 year olds had tried a drink, and 66 percent of 15 year olds. This is the lowest number recorded since 1990, when records began.
Drinking in the past week
About 1 in 10 children between the ages of 11 and 15 had drunk alcohol in the last week when they were surveyed. Most (3/5) had only consumed drink on one day of the last week. That means that 2 in 5 had drunk on at least 2 days of the past week, a concerning amount.
The amount they drank was not much, averaging at about 2 pints of beer. However, nearly 20 per cent of kids who had drunk in the last week had consumed over 15 units of alcohol. The safe maximum for an adult in a week is 14 units. The health impacts of this mode of drinking are considerable and lasting.
Nearly half of children who said they had tried alcohol reported that they had been drunk. Since records began, this number has fallen.
What do children think?
About half of secondary school pupils think it’s OK for someone their own age to drink alcohol, twice the number who say it is OK to smoke. Only 11 per cent think it is OK to try cannabis, even though it is considered a safer drug.
Children seem to be getting the message. Most remember from their lessons on alcohol and drug abuse that attitudes towards binge drinking are mostly negative. The UK has one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world and many consume it in dangerous ways: usually to excess in short periods. In many other parts of Europe, drinking is ingrained in their cultures in different ways.
Children in the UK are more health-conscious and aware of mental health conditions. Their lives are more controlled by adults, they have less freedom than children have ever had, so drinking a lot is more difficult. Attitudes towards alcohol are changing, partly led by effective education. Children know the risks. It has also lost a lot of its appeal as alcohol is less available, less visible, and more of the negatives are being stressed.
How do children get alcohol?
Most children surveyed said they had drunk with their parents. Drinking with meals and as a social thing is becoming more accepted. The urge to get drunk is still there, but children are finding better places to do it. Parental supervision can help prevent some of the wilder excesses.
“Hey mate, can you get me 4 cans of Special Brew?” is a question many adults in the UK will be familiar with. However, crackdowns on people buying alcohol for underage children have put a stop to a lot of it. Buying drinks for underage kids is much less acceptable than it used to be.