Monday, June 18,
How To Manage
Teen Drinking (The Smart Way)
By Jeffrey Kluger
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.