A new report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, Youthful Abandon: why are young people drinking less?, suggests that improvements in parenting and the reduced affordability of alcohol are the best explanations for recent declines in underage drinking.
In 2003, 61% of 11-15 year olds had tried alcohol; by 2014 this had fallen to 38%. Yet there is limited research and evidence explaining this phenomenon. Youthful Abandon surveys the academic literature and popular media to collate and assess the leading theories for why children are drinking less.
The report identifies two leading contenders: improvements in parenting and lower affordability. Parents are less likely to drink in front of their children, less likely to approve of their children drinking, more likely to know their children’s whereabouts and activities, and on some indicators have warmer and closer relationships with them. Each of these make underage drinking less likely. The alcohol duty escalator, which ensured that tax on alcohol rose above inflation between 2008 and 2013 is also identified as a likely explanation for declining alcohol use by reducing affordability.
Youthful Abandon expresses scepticism towards a number of prominent theories. The notion that lower consumption is a backlash against the habits of earlier generations fails to account for the fact that children of heavier drinkers are more likely to drink themselves. The idea that online activity and social media are crowding out drinking has limited evidence, with some studies suggesting the reverse – those who spend more time online appear more likely to drink.
Other theories are found to be plausible, but likely to only explain only a modest fraction of the shift. Stricter enforcement of ID policies can only have made a minor contribution to the fall, since relatively few underage drinkers buy their own alcohol. At its peak, only 6% of 11-15 year olds purchased alcohol from shops, with family and friends a far more common source of supply. Demographic changes associated with immigration have played a small part, with ethnic minority populations growing, and less likely to drink. Yet the fall in drinking has been greatest among white children (although this may in small part be due to the influence of minority peers).
The report concludes that further research is needed to test these hypotheses and understand the connections between them.
Katherine Brown, Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said:
This report takes an important first step towards understanding why underage drinking has fallen, which is critical if we are to maintain the welcome progress of recent years and prevent a reversal of this trend.
It’s terrific to see that better parenting skills and improved family relationships may be contributing to the fall in drinking amongst children and young people.
The influence of the economy and the affordability of alcohol on underage drinking is perhaps more concerning, given that alcohol taxes have been cut in recent Budgets. If alcohol continues to become more affordable, we could see a return to the underage drinking rates of the early 2000s.
Aveek Bhattacharya, the report’s author, said:
This report challenges a number of stereotypes and urban myths around underage drinking, including the supposed irresponsibility of modern parents and children, effects of immigration and increased use of social media.
Whilst we don’t have all the answers and evidence to explain why underage drinking drinking has fallen, the fact that alcohol has become less affordable is highly likely to have discouraged many young people. Further research is needed to explore the driving forces behind this trend, and I hope this report will be a helpful starting point.
Youthful Abandon: why are young people drinking less? can be downloaded from the Institute of Alcohol Studies website here: bit.ly/youthfulabandon