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What do underage drinkers drink?

Of those children who have tried alcohol, around a quarter drank in the last week, and around half in the last month. This is substantially lower than in 2003, when the figures were 40% and 64% respectively. This suggests that children are drinking much less frequently than before.


It is less clear, however, whether the overall volume that underage drinkers consume has fallen. Comparisons are particularly tricky, given changes in the methodology for estimating units from survey questions. The SDD suggests a slight downward trend, but the indicator is volatile.


Teenage drunkenness is not uncommon, but does appear to be declining. In 2014, 8% of English 11–15-year-olds reported being drunk in the last four weeks, with 2% saying they had been drunk on at least three occasions. This is down from 19% in 2006.


There are further indicators that the most harmful underage drinking is falling. The rate of alcohol-specific hospital admissions* of under 18s has fallen dramatically since 2009: by 46% among boys, and 38% among girls. This suggests that the heaviest drinkers (or at least those with the most harmful consumption patterns) are drinking less.


Another indicator that the most severe alcohol misuse is in decline among young people is the fact that far fewer under 18s are in specialist treatment for alcohol misuse – down 64% from the recent peak, which was 2009. Of course, these statistics by themselves do not show harmful drinking is falling, as they may reflect trends in access to treatment. However, the fact that they match and corroborate the evidence above suggests that underage drinking is falling across all levels of consumption.


Beer/lager/cider and spirits are the most popular drinks among underage drinkers, with boys favouring the former, and girls the latter. Girls have more diverse tastes, with a large proportion drinking alcopops and wine as well.


The vast majority of underage drinking occurs in domestic situations, with 74% of current drinkers usually drinking at their own or someone else’s home and 46% usually drinking at parties. By contrast, relatively little drinking occurs ‘out’: outdoors, or in pubs, clubs and bars.


Most underage drinkers do not buy their own alcohol – rather, they are most likely to be given it by parents, friends or others. A sizeable proportion take alcohol from parents or friends.


Over half of underage drinkers (56%) say that they usually drink with their parents. However, drinking with mixed-sex friendship groups (52%), same-sex friendship groups (35%) and siblings (37%) is also common.


Factors that may drive underage drinking

A substantial amount of research has sought to explain the causes and predictors of underage drinking. A number of characteristics have been identified which increase the likelihood of young people consuming alcohol.

A significant influence is a young person’s ‘expectancies’ towards alcohol – whether they are positively or negatively disposed towards it, and the extent to which they associate it with positive or negative consequences. Positive expectancies towards alcohol increase the chances of a child drinking.[1] There is evidence that children are less likely to believe that alcohol is acceptable than before, though almost half still feel it is acceptable for children of their age to try alcohol, and a quarter believe it is acceptable to drink on a weekly basis.


Less clear is what determines these expectancies towards alcohol. In a review of the literature, Donovan identifies four ‘domains’ of risk factors: family, peer, personality and behavioural.[2]

Family domain risk factors

A number of variables around family context have been consistently found to be associated with underage drinking. In particular:

  • Modelling: Parents’ propensity to drink themselves – children of heavier drinkers are more likely to drink.[3] Parental smoking and use of other drugs has also been linked to underage drinking.
  • Approval: Children whose parents are more permissive towards drinking are more likely to drink. This is also associated with children having easier access to alcohol, which is another factor linked to higher drinking rates.[4]
  • Monitoring: Children whose parents have a better awareness of their activities and whereabouts are less likely to drink.[5]
  • Relationship quality: A range of indicators of parent-child relationships, including strength of communication[6], support, acceptance, structure[7], and openness/lack of secretiveness[8] are associated with lower teen drinking. Velleman argues that the optimal parenting style to reduce the likelihood of underage drinking involves instilling self-efficacy, imposing clear, consistent and enforced rules and close bonding.[9]
  • Family structure: pp121-9.,Alcohol Dependence ersonality, drinking, smoking and illicit drug use: a study of UK teenagers, parental control"to drChildren from 'intact' families (i.e. living with both natural parents) have been found to be less likely to drink.[10]

Peer domain risk factors

The influence of peers has long been recognised in shaping children’s propensity to consume alcohol. For example, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation investigation of young people’s attitudes to alcohol found that “Alcohol, but in particular drunkenness, were seen to facilitate socialising, and the creation and maintenance of group bonds. These peer group needs are prominent during young adulthood”.[11]

A number of studies have found that greater use of alcohol and other drugs among friends is associated with higher underage drinking.[12] However, greater social assertiveness, which can be seen as independence from peer pressure reduces the likelihood of drinking.[13]

There is some debate over whether direct peer pressure is the main factor in influencing underage drinking, or whether peer selection (the idea that associating with the sort of children who drink the child’s underlying characteristics) better explains the relationship.[14] Both are likely to play a role. Similarly, the relative importance of family and peer influences is disputed, with some suggesting that parental influence is more important in younger children, and peer influence in older.[15] However, the relationship between the two is complex – for example, parents may be able to influence the groups that their children associate with.

Personality domain risk factors

Personality domain factors that influence underage drinking include values, beliefs, attributes, dispositions and psychological condition. The sorts of factors that have been linked to drinking include[16]:

  • Attainment and attitudes to school: Those who are less successful, have lower expectations of achievement, or who are less motivated at school are more likely to drink
  • Rejection of authority: Tendencies towards unconventionality, rebelliousness and rebellion against parents are linked to higher drinking
  • Affective disorders: Stress, anxiety and depression are generally associated with higher alcohol use

Behavioural domain risk factors

As noted above, underage drinkers are more likely to engage in other risky or anti-social behaviours. Children identified by their teachers as aggressive are more likely to take up drinking. Underage drinkers are more likely to smoke. They tend to watch more television.[17] Miller identifies heavy drinking with ‘sociable delinquency’ – behaviours such as “frequently going out with friends, riding round on mopeds, playing on slot machines, being delinquent and aggressive and experiencing less parental control”.[18] By contrast, engaging in hobbies such as reading, singing, drawing and writing reduces the likelihood of underage drinking.[19]


A final factor regularly cited as a cause of underage drinking is marketing. A substantial literature shows that children are regularly exposed to alcohol industry marketing and that children who are more exposed to marketing are more likely to drink. This is covered in greater detail in the IAS Marketing factsheet.**

There is some debate over how the influence of marketing relates to other influences described above. For example, it has been suggested that children’s susceptibility to alcohol advertising is mediated by the pre-existing expectancies and attitudes they have towards alcohol as a result of family and peer influence.[20] Thus leads Velleman to argue that the risk of children being encouraged to drink by industry marketing can be reduced by parents countering these messages with alternative perspectives on alcohol.[21]

* That is, admissions for conditions in which alcohol is causally implicated in all cases, such as alcohol-related liver cirrhosis



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[1] Velleman, R. (2009), Influences on how children and young people learn about and behave towards alcohol. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pp. 17–19; Bremner, P. et al (2011), Young people, alcohol and influences. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

[2] Donovan, J.E. (2004), Adolescent alcohol initiation: A review of psychosocial risk factors, Journal of Adolescent Health 35:6, pp529.e7-529.e18

[3] Rossow, I. et al (2016), Does parental drinking influence children’s drinking? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies?, Addiction 111:2, pp. 204–17

[4] Ryan, M. et al (2010), Parenting factors associated with reduced adolescent alcohol use: a systematic review of longitudinal studies.; Bremner et al, op. cit.

[5] Ledoux, S. et al (2002), Family structure, parent-child relationships, and alcohol and other drug use among teenagers in France and the United Kingdom, Alcohol and Alcoholism 37:1, pp. 52–60; Ryan, op. cit.

[6] Ryan, op. cit.

[7] Foxcroft, D. & Lowe, G. (1991), Adolescent drinking behaviour and family socialization factors: a meta-analysis, Journal of Adolescence 14:3, pp. 255–73

[8] McCann, M. et al (2016), Assessing elements of a family approach to reduce adolescent drinking frequency: parent-adolescent relationship, knowledge management and keeping secrets, Addiction 111:5, pp. 843–53

[9] Velleman, op. cit.

[10] Donovan, op. cit.; Ledoux et al, op. cit., Foxcroft & Lowe, op. cit.

[11] Seaman, P. & Ikegwuonu, T. (2010), Drinking to belong: Understanding young adults’ alcohol use within social networks. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, p. 17

[12] Bremner, op. cit.; Donovan, op. cit.

[13] Donovan, op. cit.

[14] Velleman, op. cit.

[15] Seaman & Ikegwuonu, op. cit.

[16] Donovan, op. cit.

[17] Donovan, op. cit.

[18] Miller, P. (1997), Family structure, personality, drinking, smoking and illicit drug use: a study of UK teenagers, Drug and Alcohol Dependence 45:1-2, pp. 121–9

[19] Ibid.

[20] Martino, S.C. et al (2006), Socio-environmental influences on adolescents’ alcohol outcome expectancies: a prospective analysis, Addiction 101:7, pp. 971–83

[21] Velleman, op. cit., p. 37