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01/07/2016

New report assesses explanations for lower teen drinking

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.

On the day that Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie arrives in cinemas, the report challenges the ‘Ab Fab’ theory – that children are shunning alcohol in a ‘backlash’ against the habits of their parents. It also plays down commonly-held notions that stricter ID policies, the advent of social media and demographic changes due to immigration are responsible for the reduction in underage drinking.

In 2003, 61% of 11-15 year olds in England had tried alcohol; the most recent available data shows that by 2014 this had fallen to 38%. Yet there is relatively little existing research explaining the drop.

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Youthful Abandon collects and tests a number of arguments for why underage drinking has fallen, finding:

  • Contrary to the theory that Britain is producing a generation of Ab Fab ‘Saffys’, revolting against the hedonism of their parents, children from heavier drinking families are in fact more likely to drink themselves
  • Indeed, on a number of measures, parents have become more responsible in recent years, reducing the likelihood of underage drinking because they 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
  • have warmer relationships with their children
  • Higher taxes and lower wage growth substantially reduced the affordability of alcohol between 2008 and 2013, which is likely to be one of the main causes of falling consumption
  • Enforcement of ID policies has played only a minor role, since relatively few children ever bought their own alcohol – at its highest, only 6% ever bought alcohol from a shop
  • There is little existing evidence to show that children are drinking less because they are spending more time online or on social media – in fact, such behaviour is linked with greater alcohol use
  • Demographic changes due to immigration cannot explain the shift, which has occurred among white children as well as ethnic minorities

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. This will be welcome news for modern parents who have been accused setting bad examples akin to Ab Fab’s Eddy.

“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 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”.