Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

New study reveals the 7 best ways to keep your teens from drinking

NOTE: This article was first published on examiner.com. 

Diving into the latest data about alcohol use by 12 to 17-year-olds reveals the seven habits of parents whose kids don’t drink or drink far less frequently than others. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released the details of their 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health yesterday, December 6, 2012. Prior to this date, only top-line data for 2011 was available.

Overall, there’s good news. Alcohol use by middle and high school students is at an all time low. The 2011 study revealed that 65.5 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds have never used alcohol compared to 64.6 percent in 2010 and 57.1 percent in 2001. That means 14.7 percent more 12 to 17-year-olds have reported abstaining from alcohol use between 2001 and 2011.

On average, 13 percent of students 12 to 17 years old had one or more drinks in the past 30 days, almost 15 percent drank between 30 days and 12 months ago, and 7 percent had at least one drink over a year ago.

It’s not surprising that when we break the numbers down by age, alcohol use increases each year. Ninety-three percent of 12-year-olds have never used alcohol. Among 13-year-olds, 84 percent have never had alcohol and that drops to 74 percent of 14-year-olds. The numbers are more concerning among the older teens, with only 39 percent of 17-year-olds saying they never had alcohol, 29 percent who had it within the past 30 days, 24 percent who drank between 30 days and 12 months prior to the study and eight percent who haven’t have a drink in more than 12 months, meaning they were 16 when they did. (Slide 1)

The biggest surprise in the study? Talking to your kids about the dangers of alcohol, drugs and smoking had practically no impact on whether the students drank or not. (Slide 2)

So, what can we as parents do to help improve the odds that our children are among the overall alcohol-free majority?

  1. Keep your interactions positive: Let your kids know when they’ve done a good job. Among teens who said their parents or guardians frequently let them know when they have done a good job, an average of 72 percent have never used alcohol. (Slide 3) Similarly, try to catch them doing something good or right. A solid 71 percent of teens who have never had a drink answered “Always” when asked, “During the past 12 months, how often did your parents tell you they were proud of you for something you had done?” (Slide 4)

  2. Keep the arguments to a minimum. Do arguments lead to underage drinking or does the drinking lead to arguments? Perhaps the answer to both is “yes” but there aren’t any studies to tell us which comes first. As adults, we can only control our own behavior. If we can reduce the number of times we allow differences of opinion with our kids to escalate to arguments, we might be able to keep the odds they drink down. An impressive 80 percent of teens who reported that they haven’t argued with their parents over the past 12 months claim they didn’t drink. Among those who answered they had only argued one or two times over the past year, 72 percent have never had any alcohol. (Slide 5) Interestingly, if both parents live in the household, and the students report they haven’t argued with them over the past year, that number rises to an astonishing 82 percent.
  3. Keep the kids busy: There’s an old saying that applies: “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” In other words, if your kids are busy doing activities that engage them, they won’t have time for, or interest in, getting into trouble with drinking or drugs. Regardless of whether your kids are involved in extracurricular activities in or out of school, the more they are involved in some sort of activity, the less they are involved in alcohol.

    However, not every activity offers the same value. The study looked at chores, school-based activities, community-based activities, faith-based activities and activities that were privately organized.

    • Chores had the lowest positive impact on alcohol use. Unlike the other activities, a lot of chores are just as bad as no chores. When asked, “In the past 12 months, how often did your parents make you do chores around the house?” alcohol use was significantly lowest among kids who were given chores “Sometimes”, but it increased among those who answered “Always” and rose further among those who answered, “Seldom” or “Never.” The lesson is to give them some chores but don’t be a taskmaster. (Slide 6)
    • More significant results overall were reported among those who said they were involved in three or more kinds of activities over the past year. Among students who participated in at least three community-based or school-based activities, 70 percent reported never having used alcohol, 11 percent said they had had at least one drink in the past 30 days, 14 percent between 1 and 12 months, and 5 percent said it had been more than 12 months since they drank. These are statistically significantly lower than the overall average and better than the results for students who didn’t participate. (Slides 7 & 8) Community-based activities included volunteering, sports, clubs, or groups. School-based activities included team sports, cheerleading, choir, band, student government, and clubs.
    • Results improved even more among students who did three or more faith-based or religious activities in the past 12 months. An average of 74 percent of these students said they had never tried alcohol, while only 8 percent drank in the past 30 days. Faith-based activities include clubs, youth groups, Saturday or Sunday school, prayer groups, youth trips, service or volunteer activities. (Slide 9)
    • The best activities for keeping your kids happily busy are the kinds that parents have to be able or willing to fund, including dance lessons, piano lessons, karate lessons, or horseback riding lessons. That means the results may be skewed by families who are more stable financially. The bounce is significant, though. A full 75 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds who participated in at least three of these kind of lessons during the year reported not drinking. Drinking in the past 30 days was down to 10 percent, between 1 month and 12 months was lowered to 11 percent and only 4 percent reported having at least one drink over 12 months ago. (Slide 10)
    • There’s one activity that should be discouraged: watching TV. The correlation is impressively high between students who said they abstained from alcohol and reported that their parents limited television viewing “Always” (78 percent) and “Sometimes” (76 percent). (Slide 11)


    The lesson is to provide your kids with an opportunity to get involved in extracurricular activities they are interested in doing. Remember, the free activities available at school or in the community have almost as significant a positive impact on underage drinking rates as the ones you must pay for and those your church, synagogue or mosque provide.

  4. Try to help when they need your help. While helping your kids with their homework when they ask for help is good, the downside of not always helping them is as damaging as never telling them they did a good job or never offering them praise. Significantly more students (71 percent) who reported that their parents “Always” helped them with their homework when they asked for help didn’t drink compared to those who got help “Sometimes” (63 percent), “Seldom” (50 percent) or “Never” (43 percent). Although no one asked the respondents if they were “latchkey kids”, it’s seems logical that if you’re around for advice when they’re doing their homework, you’re around when they’re home from school and those all-important after school activities. Among kids who answered “Always”, as few as 10 percent reported they had had a drink in the past 30 days versus 13 percent who answered “Sometimes”, 21 percent who said “Seldom” and 27 percent who answered “Never”. Imagine, not helping your child with their homework when they ask translates to a 270 percent increase in the odds that they will drink as recently as that month. (Slide 12)
  5. Let them know how you feel about frequent drinking. Kids who thought their parents would strongly disapprove of daily drinking, reported they drank less or not at all. It’s not surprising that over 90 percent of the students believed their parents felt this way. Nor is it a surprise that it had a positive impact on whether they have ever had a drink (68 percent). Although the students who answered otherwise were a small group, it is interesting that a larger percentage of students drink who thought their parents would only mildly disapprove (33 percent in the past 30 days, 33 percent less recently), than those who said their parents would neither approve or disapprove (31 percent drank in the past 30 days, 20 percent less recently). (Slide 13) Sharing your feelings with your children about alcohol use is different than lecturing them about the dangers of drinking. According to this study, the first one works; the second one has minimal impact.
  6. Families who pray together…reduce underage alcohol use. Attending religious services frequently had the second most positive impact on underage drinking abstinence levels than other types of activities. Over three-fourths (76 percent) of students who attended religious services at least once a week and 70 percent of those who attended 25 to 52 times each year have never had any alcohol. (Slide 14)

    Although only 17.3 percent of all teens reported attending regular religious services at least weekly, respondents who have religious service as a regular part of their life also reported the least amount of alcohol use. While almost 20 percent of those who have both parents at home did so, this did not hold true for those few respondents who didn’t live with either of their parents.

    One anomaly that needs further explanation is that the highest percentage of alcohol users on this graph are those who attend services 3 to 5 times a year (43 percent), while a smaller number of those who never attend services drink (38 percent).

  7. A stable home life is best. This is perhaps the hardest element to control. Two kinds of stability were examined: two-parent households and staying in the same home for five years or more.

    The presence of both parents in the household reduced underage alcohol use the greatest amount. Regardless of the measure examined – age, arguments, praise, activities, etc. – and in the absence of any other specific positive action, just the presence of two parents improved abstinence levels above the average rate. While the presence of one parent improved the rate of alcohol use when compared to the results for children in a household without either of their parents, teens in both one and no-parent households drank more than their fellow students with two parents at home. (Slide 15)

    Staying in the same home for five years also had great positive correlation with lower drinking rates. The more frequently the family moved, the higher the rates of alcohol use. Approximately 67 percent of the students who didn’t move at all over the past five years hadn’t had a drink, while that was true for only 57 percent of students who had moved four or more times over the same period. (Slide 16)
    It’s important to note that SAMHSA doesn’t ask the students if the alcohol they had was for religious purposes or was provided by their parents in their own home, both of which are legal in most states. The data and documentation files for the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health are available via download, online analysis, and Quick Tables.

Citation: United States Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality NATIONAL SURVEY ON DRUG USE AND HEALTH, 2011 [Computer file]. ICPSR34481­v1. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institute [producer], 2012. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter­university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2012­11­28.

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