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A Teenager’s Guide to Not Drinking Alcohol

Spending your high school years drunk is a dying art — teenagers have been swiftly sobering up since the millennium. But why?

It was ten years ago — back when posting pictures online still seemed like a fun, frivolous thing to do, rather than a grueling part-time job in a color-correction — that we first became aware of the catastrophic downsides of networking platforms.

Around that time, cases started popping up like that of Ashley Payne, a 24-year-old English teacher in Georgia, who lost her job in August 2009 after posting holiday snaps to Facebook in which she was seen holding glasses of liquids that looked for all the world like wine and beer — beverages, the school chemistry department would have been able to confirm, that are usually rich in alcohol. Worse, in those pictures, she appeared to be having a mildly, if not rockingly, good time.

It’s not clear what the school authorities had hoped to achieve with their disciplinary action, but if her pupils learned one lesson from seeing their teacher publicly pint-shamed out of her profession, it probably wasn’t that booze is evil and ruins lives. Much more likely, it was something like: Never be seen holding drinks during fun times on the internet.

While Payne might seem to have been an unfortunate casualty of an earlier, more morally panicked era of social media, the fear of besmirched online reputations is definitely still a specter that haunts the current teenage generation. According to Kennedy Williams, a senior at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, it’s a concern that figures pretty highly in her fellow students’ attitudes to alcohol. “As teenagers, alcohol doesn’t look desirable. It’s not legal, first of all,” she points out, “but on Instagram for example, I wouldn’t see a post of someone at my high school with a drink, most likely because they’re trying to preserve their image for college admissions, the extracurriculars they’re involved in, etc. They don’t want to be known as someone who drinks and does an illegal activity at that age.”

Something else that Ashley Payne’s shamers might not have considered in 2009 was that any teacher’s ability to incite liver damage among the student body would have been severely limited in any case, pitched as it was against the prevailing trends in drinking among American teenagers. Since at least the early 2000s, with each passing year, teenagers in America had been — and still are — consuming less and less alcohol.

For those of us whose later teenage years are lost in a sticky Jägermeister fog, the downturn in underage drinking over the last two decades is sobering. According to Department of Health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of American high school students who reported having tried alcohol at least once in their lives dropped by roughly a quarter between 1994 and 2015 (from 82 percent to 63 percent), while the numbers drinking regularly (at least once a month) fell much harder — from just over half of all high school students in 1994 to just under a third by 2015.

It’s not only in the U.S. that the faint aroma of Jack and gin has been lifting from school halls. “These changes have been surprisingly consistent across numerous countries,” contends Hilde Pape, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who in March 2018 published a review of more than 65 studies from around the world that looked at underage drinking since the year 2000, citing “almost all European countries, as well as others such as Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand.” The global move toward abstinence among teenagers, says Pape — in which some countries such as Russia, Sweden and Portugal have reported drop-offs of teens drinking on a weekly basis of more than 60 percent — “was not foreseen. As researchers in the field, we are still in a puzzle trying to find out what has caused this to happen.”

Just like the social scientists, popular culture hasn’t quite got its head around this shift yet either. Says Williams, “By watching local news stories and teenage films throughout high school I would have expected that underage drinking would have been something that I saw more of. I honestly can’t remember any situation where drinking was involved.” On the other hand: “I definitely don’t think it’s rare that teenagers at my high school drink” — these days, perhaps, you just have to be doing it to see it.

So, inconclusive research notwithstanding, what might be behind the unstoppable rise of the teen teetotaler? If you’re a First World teenager in 2019, and unlike many who are new to it, you can actually tolerate the gas-station-juice taste of alcohol, here are a few of the reasons you might be finding yourself recoiling from the stuff all the same…

You Want a Clean Online Profile — But It’s Complicated

The flip side of not being spotted embracing a keg like it’s your long, lost brother on Instagram is taking to digital media to testify about why you choose to refuse to booze in the first place. Perhaps reflecting the sobriety of the times, YouTube seems a-froth with young vloggers from everywhere, breezily vlogsplaining their lifestyle choices never to consume alcohol.

But despite the fact that digital culture is overwhelmingly cited by commentators in the media as the number one reason for a loss of interest in youth drinking, the research doesn’t necessarily bear this out. Almost everywhere, the decline started before the dawn of social media. And while some studies have suggested that a preference for socializing online over IRL might be constricting the take-up of drinking, research from Canada (among other studies) has found that “daily use of social media is linked to greater odds of regular alcohol use in males,” as well as a “higher likelihood of binge drinking in both girls and boys.”

Although the analysis is conflicted, Pape says she finds it hard to let go of the idea that the internet is somehow helping to drive the trend. In countries from New Zealand to Finland, “the digital revolution is very conspicuous as a huge, international change in lifestyle and spare time activities, and there are few other common factors that are that striking,” she says. “I would almost expect that somebody would be able to demonstrate that there is something there that we haven’t thus far been able to capture.”

You Don’t Want to Disappoint Your Parents

“I do it in very small groups,” is how one of Williams’ male friends in Frisco described his boozing exploits on a podcast about underage drinking, which she made last year for her high school news site. “I would never drink at a party — unless I had a friend who was at that party who was sober, who would see me back to their house. Not my own house, because I’d get whipped if I was drunk.”

His wariness might reflect a changing picture of how parents relate to their teenage kids, which a number of investigations have pointed out coincides neatly with the global slump in underage drinking. One trend, explains Pape, is to do with the fact that parents’ norms, attitudes and behavior around teenage drinking “have become more restrictive” — which might well account for the whipping.

The other major development, which really doesn’t, is a shift among parents toward being generally closer and more open with their teenage children, showing more affection and being more involved in their lives. “It’s well-documented that there’s a link between parenting style, both general and specifically related to drinking, and their teenage kids’ actual drinking behavior,” says Pape. Her overall impression — which she warns isn’t yet supported by a wealth of evidence — is that with parental bonds being closer, “there’s less rebellion among young people; they’re more tight with their families.” And, as a consequence, less tight away from them.

You Want to Stay in Control

“When I think about it, I do not like the idea of not being in control of my body… and how I’m feeling,” said British university student Holly Gabrielle in a lengthy vlog on sobriety from November 2017. “I’m just very happy living a very sober life.”

It could be that a key ingredient in the drinking downturn is part of an overall change in teenage lifestyle, suggests Pape, who refers to “qualitative studies, which include in-depth interviews with young people, which leave the impression that they’re much more concerned about health, of being in control, of taking care of their bodies and what they eat,” than they had been in previous generations.

“For me,” says Williams, “I believe that engaging in the drinking culture will only distract me from my personal goals. Obviously, that’s not the case for everyone, but I’d rather not face the risk at all.”

At least some of her schoolmates who do like to drink also seem keen to keep it responsible, if illegal, in their own way, and are unwilling to fully hand over control to their drunk selves. As her podcast guest framed it, the “five or six times” he had tried alcohol it had been deliberately conducted in the company of one or two sober friends, “to make sure we’re not going to do anything too dumb.” “Whenever I drink I plan it down to a tee,” he explained, sounding a little like a group of social scientists who are grappling with the topic. “There’s a schedule. It’s not like a spontaneous thing.”

It’s Not Just Unfashionable, It’s Unspeakable

Teenagers’ attitudes and social norms are perhaps slippery things for non-teenage researchers to quantify, but one study in 2012 gave it a shot. Based on data from around 130 U.S. high schools, researchers found that young people born in the 1990s were expressing increasing levels of disapproval toward the notion of weekend binge drinking — peaking among those born in 1994 with a disapproval rate well above 80 percent (compared to just 54 percent disapproval among those born in 1962).

The act of excessively tying one on could be even more heavily frowned upon by the generations born after the millennium. Williams thinks peer-group disapproval is one of the reasons alcohol doesn’t get discussed at her school, even when all the adults are out of the room. “I definitely think people at my school who drink generally feel ashamed about it. I may be wrong, but I feel like our culture here is centered around looking as professional or socially mature as possible, and I’m sure many other high schools have a similar presence about them.”

Those Kids Who Are Drinking Scare the Bejeesus out of You

A heightened distaste toward all-out intoxication could be related to one aspect of underage trends that continues to perplex researchers. While a decline in drinking overall has been seen just about everywhere, changes in binge drinking have followed nowhere near as consistent a pattern. The Centers for Disease Control figures show that even as alcohol consumption in U.S. high schools has withered from majority to minority pastime, binge drinking is still the preferred way to throw it back. To wit, while the overall high school binge-drinking rates dropped between 1999 and 2015 from 32 percent to 18 percent, in 2015 nearly 60 percent of those students still consuming were binge drinkers — and of these, around 44 percent had been getting wasted on at least eight drinks in a row.

According to Pape’s review of international studies, in a handful of other countries, including France, Croatia, Hungary and Poland, teen binge-drinking rates actually went up over roughly the same period, even as the number of underage drinkers was shrinking.

The takeaway here is that while the total proportion of teenagers choosing to abstain has gone up sharply, those who don’t are chugging as much as they ever did — and this might well be intensifying the desire to maintain self-control among their sober peers looking on. Williams recalls her two younger sisters, who are zoned to a different school, telling her about “a female athlete at their school who showed up to class intoxicated to the point where her blood alcohol was very close to a lethal amount. Just hearing my sisters describe how pale she looked and the way she could hardly walk really bothered me.”

You Don’t Want to Make a Disgraceful Exit from Childhood Just Yet

Despite the concerns expressed over future job prospects, and the emphasis placed on maturity by Williams and seniors like her, there are murmurs from cultural psychologists that the decision not to indulge in alcohol might be linked to a much broader teenage phenomenon: A widespread urge to delay the onset of adulthood till much later in life than previous generations (which is definitely a thing, and one that we’ve covered before).

“The body of empirical evidence is weak” in this area, warns Pape. But: “It seems to be the case that in the changes in teenage drinking since the turn of the millennium, it’s mainly that their onset of drinking is delayed.” She thinks this could support the theory that resistance to adopting grown-up forms of behavior is underlying it all. “Normally we used to think of the onset of drinking (at least in Norway) occurring sometime in the mid-teens — and that it was an indicator of a ‘normal’ development. It would signify that you had left childhood and that you were curious about adult behavior, and it was seen as an ingredient in the process of growing up.” It might be that if the kids today aren’t very occupied with rebellion against parental authority, she suggests, “they’re also not very curious about the adult world.”

You Live in Iceland

From country to country, interventions from adult society — in the form of agencies raising awareness about the dangers of alcohol and government campaigns aimed at young people — haven’t shown up in the statistics as having a significant effect on youth drinking behavior. According to Pape, “Normally these are measures that barely make a difference; normally measures that restrict physical availability or price are the most efficient ones.”

But there’s one weird exception. Iceland has seen by far the steepest decline in teenage drinking: Between 2003 and 2015, the number of 15- and 16-year-olds who had drunk in the previous month fell by 76 percent, plummeting from over a third of that age group in total to less than one in ten. Binge drinking for the same segment of the teen population dropped in tandem, by 73 percent. “It’s so extremely dramatic,” says Pape, “I don’t think any other countries compare to Iceland.”

So what have they been doing right in Reykjavik? “I can’t say more than probably,” cautions Pape, but she thinks it comes down to the focused way the authorities implemented a whole range of preventative measures at the same time. “They really sat down to find out: ‘What can we do about the increasing trend in teenage drinking?’ — because that was the case in the 1990s.”

“They spent a lot of money to get teenagers into organized activities — which were affordable for everybody, which is important; to raise awareness among parents, they had a lot of campaigns and things going on,” Pape continues. This, in combination with tougher rules around alcohol consumption — including, controversially, a law that imposed a curfew on children between 13 and 16 after 10 p.m. during the dark winter months — may have accelerated the trend toward cleaner living across the island. “Maybe it’s easier to mobilize a population of about 300,000 souls than it is in other countries,” suggests Pape, “But it’s reasonable to assume that it did make a difference.”

It might be on a relatively small scale, but transforming the attitudes and behavior of an entire nation’s worth of teenagers is indeed an incredible feat — and if you’re skeptical about that, go ahead and try it on just one and see how you fare. Amid all the noise and conflicting evidence surrounding the subject, Iceland’s outlier experience could well prove a beacon for researchers, serving as a social Petri dish in which they might be able to discern conclusively what’s been leading the world’s teenagers toward sobriety.

And aside from that, it’s a relief to know that in encouraging adolescents to develop a healthy relationship with alcohol, there is at least one piece of advice that seems guaranteed to work: Just drink like a Viking.