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Guest Column (10/29/09)

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Debunking the myths of teenage drinking

Oct. 29, 2009

By Dayna Scott

“All teens drink alcohol!”

That is, if you believe what you see and hear in movies, TV commercials, magazine ads and storefront displays. But don’t be fooled — this is just a profit-driven illusion on the part of the alcohol industry. Not all teens drink — in fact, 66 percent of our Chittenden South eighth through 12th graders didn’t drink in the past 30 days, according to the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

The myth that all youth drink alcohol (or even that most do) is just one of many promoted in our culture. Here are a few other myths related to underage drinking that Connecting Youth would like to dispel.

MYTH: In Europe, youth drink more responsibly than in the United States.

FACT: First, there is no such thing as “responsible” use by teens here since they are under 21 and alcohol is illegal. Allowing teens to break the law should not be viewed as responsible. In addition, consumption and binge drinking rates are actually higher in most European countries than in the United States. According to the American Journal of Public Health, the national rate of binge drinking among 12- to 18-year-olds in Germany and the United Kingdom is double that of what it is in the United States (55 percent vs. 25 percent). According to researchers from the PIRE Prevention Center in Berkeley, Calif., data collected from 15- and 16-year-olds in 35 European countries (from Greenland to Turkey) indicated that European teens drink more often, drink more heavily and get drunk more frequently than American teens.

MYTH: It’s better for kids to start drinking at a young age, so they learn how to “handle” it.

FACT: The adolescent brain is still developing — especially the front part of the brain that is responsible for judgment and reason. Many recent studies show that alcohol can have a negative impact on healthy brain development. In particular, it can lead to reduced sensitivity to intoxication, adverse effects to cognitive thinking and the actual reduction in the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Early drinking is also associated with a higher risk for academic failure, depression, suicide, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection and other substance abuse. Young drinkers are also four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.

MYTH: Teens are practically adults and are old enough to make responsible decisions.

FACT: Many teens can and do make responsible decisions; this is, however, in spite of the fact that their brains are not fully developed. Teens are more prone to risky behaviors and often make impulsive decisions. This is due, in part, to the fact that the brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s. Adults make decisions using the frontal cortex, which controls rational functions. The frontal cortex of a teen’s brain is the last part to develop and, therefore, teens rely on the back part of their brain (the amygdala), which controls the instinctual, emotional and impulsive functions. Teens are also more prone to peer pressure as they seek approval from their friends, which can interfere with good judgment.

MYTH: It’s OK for teens to drink, as long as they don’t drive.

FACT: Only one-third of underage drinking deaths involve auto crashes — so taking away the car keys doesn’t make underage drinking safe. The remaining two-thirds of youth alcohol-related deaths involve alcohol poisoning, homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries such as burns, drowning and falls.

MYTH: “Clean cut” kids or athletes are less likely to use alcohol or other drugs.

FACT: All kinds of kids are susceptible to use. These include athletes, drama students, national honor society members, students from all socio-economic levels — substance use can affect anyone. Beware of developing the attitude that “My kids are good kids — they wouldn’t drink or do drugs!” The labels “good” kids and “bad” kids put a moral judgment on what should remain an issue of health and safety. That said, sometimes the so-called “good” kids are more likely to get away with using because people don’t want to believe that they would do that.

MYTH: Kids are going to drink no matter what — it’s a rite of passage.

FACT: Remember, two-thirds of teens in Chittenden South do not drink alcohol. Parents can help raise that number by creating more healthy rites of passage for teens. Do something special to acknowledge major milestones and make sure it doesn’t involve alcohol.

LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE

Here are some tips on how to better communicate with your teen:

>  Listen, do not judge or lecture.

>  Have short conversations that allow your teen to share situations. Ask open-ended questions about pressures they may face socially. Have conversations regarding your values, rules and boundaries involving alcohol, tobacco and other drug use.

>  Work with your teen to develop a contract outlining the consequences to drinking — be sure it is something you can both sign off on.

>  Be available during times when your teen is socializing.

>  Volunteer to supervise or chaperone events at other homes in the community and through school.

>  Educate yourself about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, be a credible source of information for your teen and be willing to learn with and from your child.

Dayna Scott is the CY coordinator and grants administrator. CY, or Connecting Youth, is a community-based organization dedicated to creating a safe and healthy environment for young people. Operating out of Chittenden South Supervisory Union, CY serves Charlotte, Hinesburg, St. George, Shelburne and Williston and is located online at www.seewhy.info and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/connectingyouth.

 


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