Last updated February 7, 2018 at 4:30 pm
The relationship between parents and teenagers is a tricky one. It gets even more complicated with some parents believing that supplying alcohol to their teenagers will protect them from alcohol-related risks. New research shows that this is not the case.
An Australian-led study of almost 2,000 teenagers between 12- and 18-years-old and their parents found there was no benefit or protective effects associated with giving teenagers alcohol compared to teens who were not given alcohol.
This study was carried out through questionnaires every year from 2010 to 2016. It asked about how teenagers accessed alcohol, binge drinking levels, experience of alcohol-related harm, and alcohol abuse symptoms. In the last two years of the study, teens were also asked about alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder.
It was found that parental provision of alcohol was associated with the likeliness of teenagers accessing alcohol through other sources. Teenagers supplied with alcohol from both their parents and other sources were at the greatest risk of the five adverse outcomes, potentially as a result of their increased exposure.
In the published study, the authors acknowledge several limitations, including that teenagers from low socioeconomic status backgrounds – for whom alcohol-related issues are more common – were underrepresented in the study. In addition, the binge drinking measure (defined as drinking more than four drinks on a single occasion in the past year) was conservative, which may affect the associations identified.
The lead author for the study, Professor Richard Mattick, explains that the reason behind this study was “because many Australian parents have the view have that it is their responsibility to assist their children to drink responsibility and to do that they have to give them small amounts of alcohol.”
According to him, the important take home message for parents is that “by giving alcohol to your children, even for the very best of reasons, you are not reducing their risks of harmful drinking – you are actually increasing their risk of harms.”
Australian experts react to this study
This study has big implications for Australia where drinking is embedding in Australian culture. Multiple experts weigh in on the results, all agreeing that providing alcohol to underage teenagers is harmful, regardless of the source.
Professor Jane Halliday is a group leader in Public Health Genetics, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute
“In the AQUA study comprising a cohort of pregnant women in Victoria, we found that women who began drinking regularly and/or were first intoxicated before 18 years of age have a substantial risk of being a binge drinker in the first trimester of pregnancy, compared to someone who delays such experiences.
This is of course a serious risk factor for the developing baby.”
Elizabeth Elliott AM is Professor of Paediatrics & Child Health at University of Sydney, Children’s Hospital Westmead and Director of the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit
“This very important longitudinal study clearly indicates that parents should not be encouraging drinking in their teenage children.
Contrary to previously touted “advice” that parents may encourage safe drinking practices by supplying their children with alcohol from an early age, this study confirms that the early provision of alcohol by parents only is harmful, not protective – it more than doubles the later risk of binge or risky drinking, alcohol related harms, and symptoms of alcohol use disorder.
In Australia it is illegal for someone under 18 years of age to buy alcohol, so it is somewhat surprising that 15 per cent of Year 7 children with a mean age of 12 years were given alcohol by their parents, often for special occasions and albeit in small amounts.
The health, social and economic costs of alcohol use in Australia are enormous and we must alert parents to the harms of supplying alcohol to children and support them to avoid doing so.”
Julia Stafford is Executive Officer of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Curtin University
“The message to parents and others is that no one should provide alcohol to under 18s. The best thing parents can do to protect young people from alcohol harms is not supply them with alcohol.
Parents have an enormously important role in protecting their children from alcohol harms, even when those children are in their mid-late teen years. Parents are still an important influence for teenagers and have control over one potential source of alcohol. The research shows that teens often top-up what their parents give them with alcohol from other sources, so that’s even more reason for parents not to provide alcohol to their children.
The research provides further support for the Australian low-risk drinking guidelines that recommend for under 18s, no alcohol is the safest choice. There is an ongoing need to ensure the public is aware of these guidelines and is informed about the best ways to reduce their own and others’ risks from alcohol. Good public education programs targeting parents are run in Western Australia, but unfortunately most of the rest of the country are missing out on these important messages.”
Associate Professor Melissa Norberg is currently the Deputy Director for the Centre for Emotional Health.
“The study published by Mattick and colleagues (2018) provides a great resource for parents.
Parents may be tempted to supply alcohol to their children, perhaps thinking that “it will be better if I give it to them than someone else” or ‘it may ensure that in this instance their drinking leads to no harms.’
Although the study does not shed light on what happens during a single occasion, it does tell us that parental supply of alcohol increases risk over no supply.
This makes sense. If adolescents cannot access alcohol, then they will be unable to experience problems from drinking.
Importantly, this study also has found that parental supply of alcohol doubled the odds of adolescents later having alcohol supplied through other sources. Adolescents who received alcohol from parents and other sources were the most likely to experience alcohol-related problems.
Thus, these data tell us that in the long-run, supplying alcohol to our adolescent children is not a great idea.”
Dr Liz Temple is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of New England
“The release of this research on Australia Day, which is viewed by many Australians as an opportunity for increased alcohol consumption (if not binge-drinking), is certainly timely.
The study clearly shows the obvious: regardless of the source, consumption of alcohol by high school students is associated with some level of risk.
However, the ‘take-home’ message for parents is muddied by not calculating the risks separately for providing ‘sips’ of alcohol in comparison to a full standard drink (e.g., a glass of wine, a beer or cider, a shot of vodka, etc.). There is most likely a vast difference in the levels of risk associated with sips vs. full drinks across the range of harms measured, which will also likely vary for adolescents of different ages (e.g., higher risk at 12 years than 17 years), and for a variety of reasons (e.g., dose vs. body-size, stage of brain development, etc.).
It would, therefore, be useful for the study data to be analysed in greater depth, enabling the development of more detailed advice for parents.
The conclusion that “there is no evidence to support the view that parental supply protects from adverse drinking outcomes by providing alcohol to their child” is also somewhat misleading. Specifically, it is based on the assumption that, if there was no parental supply of alcohol, adolescents would not consume any alcohol at all. While this may be true for some teenagers, (as their data shows) it is clearly not the case for many.
If the assumption was, instead, that “adolescents who are not supplied with alcohol by their parents will seek alternate sources”, the conclusion would be the opposite. That is, the results clearly indicate a higher level of risk of harms for adolescents who are supplied alcohol by people other than their parents.
As such, I think there is a need to look at the data in a more detailed manner before we suggest that allowing your 16 year old a sip of beer on Australia Day might increase their risk of future binge-drinking.”
The research is published in The Lancet Public Health.
Expert comments gathered by the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC).