“Who believes Australia has a drinking problem?”
I scan the room of teenagers and see a few raised hands and a few shaking heads. Many are not sure how to respond.
Perhaps it is an unfair question. After all, it's nearly impossible for them to evaluate objectively the culture in which they are immersed, one that celebrates binge drinking and risk-taking behaviour as their rite of passage.
Shifting away from ‘problem’ language, I move to talking about Australia’s fondness for alcohol. At this level there is complete agreement. The group resonates with author Jill Stark’s reflection that ‘Booze is the nation’s social lifeblood … [used] to celebrate, commiserate, and commemorate.’ We live in a culture saturated with alcohol.
Take sport as an example. We know the sponsorship marriages well: AFL and Carlton Draught, Cricket Australia and Victoria Bitter, the Australian Open and Heineken. At the local club level, matches are almost always followed by drinks at the sports-club bar. It’s true, as Stark observes, that ‘Drinking is an intrinsic part of our sporting culture’, despite the fact that drinking negatively affects sporting performance.
As we discuss our nation’s love of alcohol, I know what the group is thinking. It's written all over their faces.
So what we get drunk … we’re just having fun, we don’t care who sees.
So what we go out, this is how it’s s’posed to be, living young and wild and free.
These lyrics to Wiz Khalifa’s popular anthem capture the feelings of many teens, who exuberantly strap themselves in for the roller coaster ride of ‘living young and wild and free’.
The peak of this ride might be Leavers celebrations, where many teenagers channel their newfound independence into a wild week of parties and binge drinking.
A recent study, reported in the West Australian, revealed the degree to which annual Leavers celebrations are saturated with excessive drinking. As part of the study, teenagers were encouraged to anonymously share their Leavers’ experiences.
‘Alcohol was the joy maker, the medicine, the object of trade, the breakfast, lunch and tea, the dessert’, one teenager said. ‘Basically, alcohol was all schoolies was.’
Another teenager spoke of the ‘intense’ preparations for Leavers. ‘Three weeks before, a small group drove to the house and took a car full of alcohol.’
But the roller coaster ride of ‘living young and wild and free’ has a dark side, a warning in the fine print that many teenagers overlook.
In an average week, four Australians under 25 die due to alcohol related injuries and 70 are hospitalised due to alcohol related assault. Alcohol is often cited as a major factor in cases of forced and unwanted sexual encounters.
The medium and long term physical and mental health damage caused by alcohol – brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, depression – are increasingly being seen in younger patients.
Trends show that these numbers have worsened significantly in the past decade for both males and females. And with binge drinking still celebrated among teenagers there appears little hope of improving these figures.
Still, there is hope.
Beyond the statistics, it is the real stories that drive me to communicate the vital message of a healthy relationship with alcohol to teenagers.
Like the 15 year old girl who began attending our church youth group having recently returned from a long stint of rehabilitation for alcohol abuse. And my 30 year old friend who daily struggles with the effects of having spent half his life dependent on drink. And the car crash on my street that killed its teenage driver.
While most teenagers never end up in these places, binge drinking from an early age is the gateway to dependency for far too many. And for others, just one night can change their life forever. Every life steered away from this course makes my role as a communicator worthwhile.
But the responsibility to raise responsible teenagers is shared by many groups; parents, siblings, family friends and schools to name a few.
How can we positively influence teenagers to reduce the harm of binge drinking? What approaches will help us to tackle this complex issue?
Education is vital. Teaching teenagers the risks associated with binge drinking and guidelines for safe drinking is a good benchmark. But teaching moderation also comes with its challenges.
Cate Vose worked with at risk youth for a decade. She points to research that suggests ‘kids who are exposed to alcohol early in life by parents or other caregivers in an effort to model moderation and respect for alcohol, actually do their kids a disservice, as they are more likely to develop binge drinking or addiction to alcohol than kids who abstain until the age of 18.’
The issue, she explains, is that it is ‘exceedingly difficult for teenagers to develop a healthy ‘moderation’ attitude to alcohol. The way the teenage brain operates means that it is virtually impossible for young people to make good decisions about their own limits, safety plans and intimacy boundaries when intoxicated, or even before they are intoxicated.’
Added to this is the issue of peer pressure. When Jill Stark gave up alcohol for a year in her mid-30s, she described peer pressure as one of the hardest aspects of her decision. At times she feigned pregnancy to get others to stop harassing her. If this is the situation for many adults who choose to refuse a drink, the peer pressure felt by a teenager in the same situation must be overwhelming. It is a struggle to find their voice among the cries of ‘go hard or go home’.
In light of this, I wonder if one strategy a parent might use to teach responsible drinking to their teenagers is to model how to say ‘no’ and stand by that decision. On one hand, if a teenager never sees her parents say ‘no’ to a drink that is offered to them, it is hard to imagine her saying ‘no’ to her friends when she is on the receiving end.
Alternatively, if a teenager grows up seeing his parents say ‘no’ for all the right reasons – moderation, responsible driving, etiquette – he may build the confidence required to take a similar stand when he is offered a drink.
Beyond education, I believe the most effective way to challenge the binge drinking culture among teenagers and promote a better relationship with alcohol is to pitch a vision of a better life.
This is what drives the Hello Sunday Morning movement. Participants choose to give up alcohol for a set period of time in order to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol and achieve some worthwhile goals. Instead of spending each Sunday morning hungover, thousands of Australians have signed up to say ‘Hello’ to Sunday morning and a better life.
Cate Vose connects this vision for a better life with the need for teenagers to channel their risk-taking behaviour in safe environments. ‘We need to be teaching our kids how to take risks by getting them into nature and testing their physical limits; not by letting them go to parties and other contrived social settings where they are likely to take risks that may end up having long-term consequences.’
A vision better than binge drinking can motivate teenagers to make better choices. What can you do to model and promote this vision?