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Are we seeing a reversal of declining youth drinking trends in Scotland?

Dr Melissa Oldham spots some worrying signs from the official data

Melissa Oldham

17 January 2020 – Youth drinking is declining in many high income countries across Europe, Australasia and North America. This is a very positive trend as adolescent drinking is associated with a host of negative health and social consequences. Specifically, youth drinking can negatively impact brain development, educational attainment and is associated with academic disengagement and failure to complete education. Adolescent alcohol use is also linked to behaviours that carry negative consequences such as accidents, sexually transmitted infections, injuries and victimisation.

Trends in youth drinking are largely monitored by nationally representative surveys. In Scotland, the main source of data on youth drinking comes from the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS). In line with international trends, the proportion of young people in SALSUS who reported having ever drank alcohol and drinking in the last week fell consistently between 2001 and 2015. However, the most recent 2018 data could be indicative of a reversal in these trends. 

The proportion of 13-year-olds boys who reported having ever drank alcohol increased from 29% in 2015 to 37% in 2018, with a concurrent increase in the proportion of 13-year-old girls from 26% to 35%. The proportion of ever drinkers among 15-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls also increased between 2015 and 2018 (up from 63% to 70% and from 68% to 73% respectively). The proportion of boys who reported drinking in the last week increased between 2015 and 2018 (from 4% to 7% in 13-year-olds and 16% to 20% among 15-year-olds). There was also an increase in last week drinking among 13-year-old girls, from 4% in 2015 to 6% in 2018 but no statistically significant increase in 15-year-old girls.

Trends in ever and last week drunkenness were less consistent. There were significant increases in the proportion of all 13-year-olds and 15-year-old girls who reported ever drunkenness between 2015 and 2018. There was no change in the proportion of 15-year-old boys who reported being drunk. There were also increases in the proportion of 13-year-old boys who had been drunk in the last week (from 43% in 2015 to 51% in 2018), but there were no statistically significant changes among 15-year-olds or in 13-year-old girls.

In line with recent English data, the most common sources of alcohol amongst underage drinkers were taking alcohol from home (both with and without permission), from relatives and from friends. Boys were twice as likely as girls to report buying their own alcohol from an off license or from a bar; 4% of boys said they purchased alcohol from an off-licence, compared with 2% of girls and 6% of boys reported drinking in a bar, compared with 3% of girls. Again in line with English data, when young people do drink, the majority do so in their own or someone else’s home.

There were a number of factors related to home and family life that were associated with an increased likelihood of last week drinking. Children of single parents and those with caring responsibilities were more likely to have engaged in last week drinking. Furthermore, young people who thought their parents knew a below average amount about where they spent their time and money were more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those who reported average or above average parental knowledge. Although true of both 13 and 15-year-olds, this was particularly apparent for the younger cohort. Finally, having more disposable income was associated with an increased chance of last week drinking. This finding is very interesting as, as described above, only a very small minority of 13 and 15-year-olds are buying their own alcohol from shops and bars.  

A pupil’s social life also affected the likelihood of last week drinking. Those with no close friends or older friends were more likely to have drank alcohol in the last week. Spending unsupervised time, both with friends and undertaking activities with low levels of supervision, were also associated with an increased likelihood of last week drinking. Pupils who went out five or more evenings per week with friends were just under three times more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those who did not go out at all.

Finally, a number of risk factors for last week drinking were related to health and wellbeing. Those who rated their general health as ‘bad’, those who reported a long-term illness or disability were all more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those who did not. Among both age groups, pupils with below average mental wellbeing or those who had an ‘abnormal’ score for emotional and behavioural problems were more likely to have drunk alcohol in the last week than those with average or above average mental wellbeing.

This data is worrying as it suggests that trends of declining youth alcohol consumption may be reversing, although future data points are required in order to confirm this. However, recent figures from England shows a stabilising of trends, if not yet an increase in youth alcohol consumption. This indicates that more time and resources should be focused on understanding how best to encourage or maintain declines in alcohol consumption amongst young people. One approach would be to target young people who have been identified as particularly at risk. For example, young carers, those with no close friends and those with poor physical and mental health are particularly at risk of underage drinking. Further investment in services to support these at risk young people is necessary. Similarly, children who report that their parents have little idea where they spend their leisure time and money and those who spend a lot of time unsupervised seem more at risk of drinking. This could be indicative of a need for information campaigns aimed at parents highlighting the potentially negative consequences of unrestricted, unsupervised leisure time.

Written by Dr Melissa Oldham, Research Associate, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.