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Why has underage drinking declined?

As described above, there has been a marked decline in the prevalence of underage drinking in recent years. There are a variety of theories to explain this trend, though despite a lack of thorough research and compelling evidence. The IAS report Youthful Abandon summarises and evaluates these in detail, identifying seven broad hypotheses:

  1. Better legal enforcement

There is evidence that vendors are less likely to serve alcohol to underage customers than before, partly as a result of voluntary ID checking initiatives such as Challenge 21[1] and Challenge 25[2], but also because of closer collaboration between police services and local governments.[3] Data from Serve Legal, a private company offering test purchase services, shows that 45% sold to underage consumers in 2007, but that this had declined to 24% in 2010.[4] By 2015, 13% of supermarkets and 17% of convenience stores failed test purchases.[5]

However, this is likely to have made only a modest contribution to the decline in underage drinking, since relatively few underage drinkers buy their own alcohol – at its peak in 2004 only 6% of children bought alcohol from a shop and 5% from a pub. By contrast, parents and friends are a much more significant source of supply: in 2004, 27% of children had obtained alcohol from a parent, and the same number from a friend.[6]

  1. Rise of new technology

Another prominent theory attributes the falling drinking among young people to greater use of the internet and social media. It is argued that new technology provides children with alternative sources of entertainment, different ways of socialising and also increases the negative consequence of drinking – for example, because embarrassing drunken pictures may be seen by friends or potential employers.

There is limited evidence for such a theory, though little research has addressed it directly. One unpublished study reports that children who regularly play computer games are less likely to have ever drunk alcohol – though this finding only holds in three of the six countries examined, including the UK.[7] However, there is more evidence that internet usage is associated with higher drinking. The Scottish SALSUS data shows that children who drink are more likely to ‘go online and use social networking sites’ on a weekly basis (although they are slightly less likely to play computer games). This may be because children on the internet are exposed to glamourised accounts of others’ drinking, or to online advertising. Surveys of American university students indicate that they are more likely to drink if they spend more time online for a range of non-educational purposes (including social networking, downloading music, playing video games, shopping and watching pornography).[8] It is important to note, however, that these associations are merely correlations, which may disappear when controlling for confounding factors.[9]

 


 

  1. Changing social norms

A third set of theories focus on cultural change. One version of this explains falling youth drinking as a ‘backlash’ against the heavier consumption of earlier generations.[10] This reflects a long-standing theory that the social position of alcohol ebbs and flows in ‘long waves’.[11] On this view, above a certain level of alcohol consumption society reaches ‘saturation’. At this point, the harms resulting from alcohol, such as ill health and crime, lead to greater concern about alcohol at both individual and societal level. This leads to a decline in consumption. In turn, these cultural shifts bring about increasingly restrictive government policies, which further suppress consumption to the point where previous concern seems exaggerated. This leads to a relaxation of social and political attitudes, and increase in drinking, and so the cycle continues. In line with this theory, it has been suggested that the fall in underage drinking reflects the tipping point into a new ‘wave’ of attitudes turning against alcohol consumption.[12]

Cutting against these arguments is the “fairly large and consistent literature demonstrating that more parental drinking is associated with more drinking in offspring” identified by one recent systematic review.[13] The SDD shows that the more people in a young person’s household that drink, the more likely they are to drink themselves.[14] This suggests that children are more likely to emulate their parents drinking habits than to reject them.

Other theories suggest that young people are drinking less because they are more aware of the health harms associated with alcohol, or because they are more concerned about their health in general. However, there is little evidence either way to support such claims.[15]

  1. Happier and more conscientious children

As described above, there are a number of personality and behavioural traits that are associated with lower underage drinking, and there is some evidence that these are increasing. For example, some indicators of children’s subjective wellbeing improved between the mid 1990s and 2007, though it appears to have fallen back in subsequent years. In particular, indicators of educational performance and satisfaction at school appear have improved, though these trends are contested. [16]

  1. Better parenting

Trends in the parenting risk factors described above may also have contributed to lower underage drinking. Alcohol consumption among 25–44-year-olds – the group most likely to have dependent children has fallen in recent years, suggesting parents are modelling lower levels of alcohol consumption for their children.[17] Parents appear to be taking a stricter line on alcohol: the proportion of children who believe their parents would not approve of them drinking has risen from 45% in 2008 to 56% in 2014.

 


 

Parents’ monitoring of their children’s behaviour appears to have increased. The proportion of parents who regularly asked their teenage who they were with rose from 67% to 77% between 1986 and 2006, while the proportion who told their parents rose from 78% to 86%.[18] Particularly in recent years, fewer children are likely to be out late without their parents’ knowledge: 14% of 11–15-year-olds had been out after 9pm without informing their parents of their whereabouts in 2014, down from 18% in 2006.[19] There is also some evidence that parents are developing warmer and more supportive relationships with their children – for example, they are less likely to report quarrelling than in previous years.[20]

  1. Demographic shifts

A number of commentators have linked lower drinking among young people to the demographic shifts associated with immigration.[21] As mentioned above, ethnic minorities are less likely to drink than white children, so it has been suggested that the increase in ethnic minorities helps account for lower overall drinking. While this is doubtless part of the explanation, it can only be a small part of the story. Drinking has been falling among all ethnic groups, and in fact the decline has been greater among white children (who accounted for a disproportionate share of consumption to begin with).

 


 

However, it has been suggested that demographic change has less direct effects on drinking – that the peer effects of white children being surrounded by lower-drinking minorities may influence them to drink less themselves.

Studies from Norway and the Netherlands provide some support for this theory. Though the proportion of ethnic minority students in Dutch schools was found only to influence drinking among other ethnic minorities, stronger relationships have been found with religious background.[22] Schools with a higher concentration of children with parents from majority-Muslim countries have lower levels of drinking among both ‘native’ and immigrant children.[23]

  1. Lower affordability that may drive underage drinking

A final set of theories link underage drinking to the economic context. In particular, the financial crisis and recession have had three effects: to reduce spending power, to encourage the government to raise taxes on alcohol and to reduce economic confidence. It is well established that alcohol consumption is strongly influenced by affordability. [24] The recent recession has led to slow wage growth – which filters down to children through their families, but also reduces their direct earning power. At the same time, the Government raised taxes on alcohol – between 2008 and 2013, alcohol duty was increased by 2% above inflation each year.

Cumulatively, these developments have significantly reduced the affordability of alcohol for under 18s. Beer is 26% and wine and spirits 31% more expensive than in 2007. By comparison the national minimum wage for under 18s has risen by only 14% over the period.[25] Demos reports that declining affordability was cited by 16–24-year-olds as the second most likely explanation for the fall in underage drinking (referenced by 55% of respondents).[26]

 

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[1] British Beer & Pub Association, Challenge 21. Available from: <http://www.beerandpub.com/industry-briefings/challenge-21> [Accessed 4 May 2016]

[2] Wine & Spirit Trade Association, Challenge 25. Available from: <http://www.wsta.co.uk/challenge-25>. [Accessed 4 May 2016]

[3] Foster, J. & Charalambides, L. (2016), The Licensing Act (2003): its uses and abuses 10 years on, London: Institute of Alcohol Studies, p. 98

[4] Birdwell, J. et al (2013), Sobering Up, London: Demos

[5] Institute of Alcohol Studies (2016), Majority of web alcohol purchases fail age check tests, Alert. Available from: <http://www.ias.org.uk/What-we-do/Alcohol-Alert/January-2016.aspx>. [Accessed 4 May 2016]

[6] HSCIC (2015), Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use, Table 6.1

[7] Svensson, J. (2013), Alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm among young people: studies of the recent experience in Sweden, PhD Thesis, Karolinska Institutet

[8] Epstein (2011), op. cit.; Padilla-Walker, L.M. et al (2010), More Than Just a Game: Video Game and Internet Use During Emerging Adulthood, Journal of Youth and Adolescence 39:2, pp. 103–13

[9] Sik Lee et al (2013), op. cit.; Chiao, C. et al (2014), Adolescent internet use and its relationship to cigarette smoking and alcohol use: a prospective cohort study, Addictive Behaviors 39:1, pp 7–12

[10] Nelson, F. (2013), Boozy, druggy adults. Sober, serious kids. Welcome to Ab Fab Britain, The Spectator (9 November). Available from: <http://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/11/ab-fab-britain/>. [Accessed 5 May 2016]

[11] Skog, O-J. (1986), The long waves of alcohol consumption: A social network perspective on cultural change, Social Networks 8:1, pp. 1–32; Room, R. et al (2009), Explaining change and stasis in alcohol consumption, Addiction Research & Theory 17:6, pp. 562–76

[12] Livingston (2014), op. cit.

[13] 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

[14] HSCIC (2015), Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use, Table 7.1

[15] Bhattacharya, A. (2016), Youthful Abandon: Why are young people drinking less? London: Institute of Alcohol Studies, pp. 25–6

[16] Bhattacharya, A., op. cit., pp. 27–8

[17] Caul, S. (2016), Adult drinking habits in Great Britain. Office for National Statistics. Available from: <http://tinyurl.com/hu9hnay>. [Accessed 9 May 2016]

[18] Nuffield Foundation (2009), Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people. London: Nuffield Foundation.

[19] Bhattacharya, A., op. cit., pp. 30–1

[20] Bhattacharya, A., op. cit., pp. 31–2

[21] Crone, J. (2014), Generation sensible: How today’s teenagers are less likely to drink, smoke or take drugs ‘because of rise in the number of young Muslims’, Daily Mail (14 September). Available from: <http://tinyurl.com/zl4pdhy> [Accessed 9 June 2016]; Hill, A. (2015), Teetotaller numbers rise in UK with one in five adults not drinking, The Guardian (13 February). Available from:

<http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/13/teetotallers-on-rise-in-uk-one-in-five-dont-drink>. [Accessed 11 May 2016]

[22] Monshouwer, K. et al (2007), Ethnic composition of schools affects episodic heavy drinking only in ethnic-minority students, Addiction 102:5, pp. 722–29

[23] Amundsen, E.J. et al (2005), Drinking pattern among adolescents with immigrant and Norwegian backgrounds: A two-way influence, Addiction 100:1, pp. 1453–63; van Tubergen, F. & Poortman, A-R. (2010), Adolescent alcohol use in the Netherland: the role of ethnicity, ethnic intermarriage, and ethnic school composition, Ethnicity & Health 15:1, pp. 1–13

[24] Sassi, F. et al (2013), The Role of Fiscal Policies in Health Promotion, OECD Health Working Papers No66, p. 10

[25] Bhattacharya, A., op. cit., pp. 36

[26] Birdwell & Wybron (2015), op. cit.