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Good and Bad News in Teen Drinking Trends

Alcohol leaves its mark on teenagers of every generation, from legal troubles to scars to tombstones. Today’s teenagers are on track to have fewer alcohol-related incidents, which is certainly good news. But research says much work is still to be done.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data it analyzed from Youth Risk Behavior Surveys since 1991. For the most part, the news is relatively encouraging. Underage drinking declined significantly between1991 (when 51 percent of teens drank) to 2015 (when just 33 percent did). Likewise, in 1991, 31 percent of teens admitted to binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row within the past 30 days); in 2015, that number was down to 18 percent.

That silver-lined cloud has a dark underbelly, however. At the very least, several million teenagers struggle with alcohol use and abuse. As CNN puts it, one in every six teenagers binge-drinks. Plus, between 2006 and 2010, about 4,300 young people died as a result of alcohol, and in 2010 alone, underage drinking cost America $24.3 billion.

Even more “sobering” is a statistical analysis from Pediatrics. The journal not only outlines the dangers of frequent, heavy drinking—higher likelihood of unprotected sex, more physical altercations, poorer school/work performance, relational problems with parents, and an increased risk of alcohol abuse later in life—but also notes that the decline in binge drinking among females, African-Americans, and teenagers from lower-income households has been markedly slower.

“We’ve made some progress from a public-health standpoint in reducing current and binge drinking among high school students,” says Dr. Robert Brewer of the CDC, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”

And we haven’t even discussed teenagers getting behind the wheel after knocking back a few. AAA reminds us we’re now in the 100 deadliest days for teen drivers. Statistically speaking, the three months following Memorial Day weekend (a.k.a., summer) show an uptick in the number of accidents involving young drivers. For the past five years, during this 100-day period more than 5,000 people have been killed in crashes involving young drivers. (But teenagers aren’t limited to a certain “season” to be dangerous behind the wheel.)

Maintaining Momentum

The decline in alcohol use and abuse among teenagers is a certainly a great trend. But because one tragic loss is one too many, now isn’t the time to become complacent. Parents and youth workers can ensure this positive momentum continues by following these simple suggestions:

  1. Make teenagers aware of consequences. Many towns have a place where law-enforcement officers park mangled cars to warn against drinking and driving. While that can be an eye-opening and jaw-dropping lesson, you don’t have to go “doomsday” on kids to make your point. Recently I discovered that a former student had been arrested for DUI while at college earlier this year. As his father walked me through the list of consequences stemming from his son’s actions, it was tough to keep up: steep fine, loss of driver’s license, community service, dismissal from school, mandatory counseling…and you don’t even want to hear his new auto-insurance rates. I’m not saying that’s too severe; after all, someone could’ve died. But I didn’t know half of this about my state’s DUI laws. Take time to walk kids through yours.
  2. Model the example you want teenagers to follow. Although there’s no guarantee that kids will mimic your behaviors, this strategy literally can’t hurt. Take a long, honest look at your own drinking practices to see if you want kids to follow those standards. Even if you’re well within the lines of “moderation,” consider the message you send impressionable teenagers when you have a beer (or two) at a restaurant before getting behind the wheel to drive your family home.

Alcohol has marked the lives of millions of teenagers. What will you do to make sure the young people in your life don’t become statistics?

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