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- Underage drinking is falling, and the causes of this decline are poorly understood
- The most plausible theories emphasise economic factors reducing the affordability of alcohol and improvements in parenting
- There is little evidence for a number of popular hypotheses – that it is driven by stricter enforcement of ID laws, immigration, or the rise of social media – explaining more than a small amount of this change
- More research is needed to robustly test these theories
Underage drinking in the UK is in long-term decline, though it remains high:
- 38% of 11-15 year olds in England had tried alcohol in 2014, down from 61% in 2003, with similar drops in Scotland
- This trend has accelerated since 2009
- The fall has occurred at all levels of consumption, across boys and girls, and all sociodemographic groups
In order to maintain this progress, and take action to further curb underage drinking, it is important to understand the factors behind this trend.
There are seven prominent types of theory in the academic literature and popular media to explain falling underage drinking:
- Better legal enforcement of minimum purchase ages e.g. through ID schemes. Though there is some evidence that children are less able to purchase alcohol than before, this can only explain a small proportion of the decline, since relatively few underage drinkers buy their own alcohol – they are more likely to be supplied by parents or friends
- Rise of new technology such as online gaming and social networks, diverting children from drinking with alternative means of socialisation. There is limited evidence suggesting heavier internet use reduces drinking – and indeed, there is competing evidence suggesting the reverse may be true
- Changing social norms mean that drinking is seen as less acceptable than before. It has been suggested that this is due to a ‘backlash’ against the heavier drinking of previous generations, greater health awareness and health consciousness or changing gender norms. Children of heavier drinking parents are more likely to drink themselves, suggesting there is limited backlash within families. It is plausible that young people are more aware of the harms associated with alcohol and that they have been influenced by negative media portrayals of it. There is less evidence that they are more health conscious or less exposed to marketing
- Happier and more conscientious children are less likely to drink than those in previous cohorts. Subjective wellbeing and academic achievement are associated with lower drinking, and both appear to have increased in recent years, though the evidence is not conclusive
- Better parenting means that 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 metrics have warmer and closer relationships with them. Each of these parenting indicators appears to have improved (though it is less clear in the case of relationship quality)
- Demographic shifts mean that there are more ethnic minority children than before, and these groups are less likely to drink. Ethnic minorities can directly explain only a small proportion of the fall in underage drinking, which was greater among white children. There is some evidence that minority students can influence their peers: non-Muslim children in schools with a high Muslim population are less likely to drink
- Lower affordability and economic confidence due to tax increases, the recession and rising tuition fees may have discouraged drinking. Alcohol prices rose above wages from 2008 to 2014, though these trends are starting to reverse
Of these theories, declining affordability and better parenting seem most likely to have substantially reduced underage drinking. By contrast, stricter ID policies and immigration have only made a modest contribution to the fall.
There is a substantial need for further research, both to robustly test these theories, but also to understand how they fit together and influence one another.
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