Allowing Children to Drink Can Lead to Binge Drinking

Legal drinking ages are as varied as the states and countries that impose them. In the United Kingdom, you can legally give alcohol to any child over 5 years old, but you cannot purchase alcohol until you are 16 (for beer, wine, or cider) or 18 (for hard liquor). In Spain, you must be 14 to drink alcohol and 16 to purchase it; in Italy and Greece, there is no age limit for drinking alcohol but you must be 16 or 17, respectively, to buy it. In Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is completely illegal to drink or purchase alcohol, and offenders are punished with lashes. And in some states in India, one cannot drink or purchase alcohol until the age of 25.

Although the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, many parents are starting to adopt the relaxed European example, believing that exposing their children to alcohol earlier will cultivate a healthier attitude towards it. But new research suggests that introducing a child to alcohol earlier in life may increase the likelihood that he or she binge drink in college.

Inside Science News Service reported that at this year’s meeting of the Society for Prevention Research, researcher Caitlin Abar of the Prevention Research and Methodology Center at Pennsylvania State University suggested that parents enforce a zero-tolerance policy in the home. She also said that there is no scientific evidence to support the belief that prohibiting alcohol turns it into a “forbidden fruit” and encourages abuse.

In an effort to see whether the prohibition of alcohol by parents might be a cause of binge drinking, Abar surveyed almost 300 college freshmen and compared their drinking habits to their parents’ attitudes toward alcohol. The students whose parents never allowed them to drink—about 50 percent of the group—were significantly less likely to binge drink in college, regardless of gender.

“The greater number of drinks that a parent had set as a limit for the teens, the more often they drank and got drunk in college,” Abar said. Whether the parents drank themselves has little effect on their children’s behaviors.

A 2004 study by Kristie Foley of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina showed that teenagers who received alcohol from their parents for parties were up to three times more likely to binge drink within a month, whereas those who drank only with the family were less likely to binge drink. This suggests that the context in which the parent provides alcohol is important.

Alexander Wagenaar, a social epidemiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has charted the effects of raising the drinking age for nearly three decades, finds Abar’s data convincing. He said that a 2007 study by Kelli Komro of the University of Florida of 1,388 children showed that schoolchildren who were permitted alcohol in the home by their parents in sixth grade were up to three times more likely to get drunk and almost twice as likely to drink heavily at ages 12-14.

Abar noted that further research is needed to confirm the preliminary study. Limitations of her study include that she did not separate students who specifically drank alcohol with their parents during meals from those whose parents allowed their children to drink both inside and outside the house. In addition, Abar’s survey group was composed almost entirely of white students who lived on campus.

Source: Inside Science News Service, June 2009

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