On your way to work this morning you many have noticed a billboard or ad on the T, informing parents about the danger—and prevalence— of underage drinking. The signage is part of the “We Don’t Serve Teens” campaign, a national program urging parents and other adults to be more proactive in stopping underage drinking. Boston is the first to launch the campaign citywide, and with good reason; underage drinking is declining nationally but remains a very persistent problem here, particularly among the large number of college students who call the city home for nine months out of the year.
Educating adults about the dangers of underage drinking is no coincidence either. According to a national government survey 69 percent of underage drinkers get their alcohol from older family or friends. Clearly some of the people providing this alcohol, whether they do it knowingly or not, aren’t aware of how serious a problem underage drinking really is.
But simply limiting teens’ access to alcohol isn’t enough. Both adults and young people need to be more aware of why underage drinking is so dangerous. Let’s be honest, teenagers are far more resourceful than many adults give them credit for. In many cases, if they want to get alcohol, a lot of these kids will find a way. Consistently enforced policies regarding underage drinking are vital to combating it, but to be truly successful in reducing the number of teenagers who are drinking we need to attack the root of the problem. If more teenagers knew just how damaging alcohol is to their safety and future health, I believe fewer would want to drink at all, regardless of how readily available alcohol is.
Science has learned a great deal about the human brain in the past decade, especially about how it develops during adolescence. We now know that our brains continue to lay down new white matter pathways into our mid or late twenties, and damage done by alcohol during this important developmental stage can have far reaching consequences. A recent, large national longitudinal study found that people who start drinking as young teenagers have a 45 percent chance of developing alcoholism as adults. In comparison, people who start drinking at 21 have only a 9% chance of becoming alcoholics. Early onset of drinking increases lifetime risk of developing alcoholism five times over. If people knew that there was this level of risk, would underage drinking still be such a problem?
But alcohol doesn’t always require that much time to wreck havoc on a person’s life. Sometimes, one night is enough. There are thousands of sexual assaults on college campuses every year, and in more than half of these cases alcohol was a contributing factor, either by the attacker, the victim, or both. Just a few months ago I counseled a young woman who was raped by a fellow student after passing out at a party. It was her first night away from home, the very first day of her freshman year.
Unlike the emerging science we have on how alcohol damages young brains, statistics highlighting how booze contributes to car accidents, assault, vandalism and other crimes and injuries are nothing new. They were a problem when I was in college, they
remained a problem when my son attended Umass Amherst a few years ago, and most likely they will continue to be a concern when my daughter heads off to college 3 years from now.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way, and the change must start with us.
As parents, we are our children’s best defense against the dangers of underage drinking. Talk with your kids about alcohol— not only about the damage it can do to their bodies— but also how being around young drinkers greatly increases their chances of being hurt, accosted or arrested, even if they choose not to drink. It may not always seem like it, but your kids are listening. Studies show that young people whose parents talk often and openly about substance abuse are less likely to experience problems with alcohol and drugs than children whose parents ignore the subject. The number one reason youth give for not drinking or using drugs is, “Are you kidding? My parents would kill me!”
Parents also need to demand that colleges enforce their alcohol polices. When you send your child off to school you assume she will be kept safe from harm. One of the best ways to ensure that safety is for the university to have a clearly defined and consistently enforced alcohol policy. It’s been proven that when college authorities are lax in enforcing their alcohol laws, the student body is lax in respecting them. As a parent you have a right to be worried by that fact, and as tuition payer you have a right to voice your concerns. If you feel your child’s school isn’t doing enough to combat underage drinking, contact them and let them know. It may take a few tries to get through to the right campus official (I recommend you start with the Dean of Students’ office), and if your kids find out they may accuse you of being overprotective, but in the long run it’s worth the trouble. Taking a proactive stance against underage drinking may not be your most popular move as a mom or dad, but take comfort in knowing that you’re not doing it to deprive your children of fun, but to protect their lives, health and futures. At the end of the day, isn’t that our most important job as parents?