Who are the 11 year old drinkers?

The number of young people who say they drink alcohol has recently fallen. But the teenage years are still the time most of us start drinking. Drinking can be linked to other types of risky adolescent behaviour and, later in life, alcohol remains a major risk factor for illnesses such as heart attacks, cancer and diabetes. Most research to date has focused on the later teenage years, but a new study published in BMC  Public Health has taken a close look at children in early adolescence. Professor Yvonne Kelly at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL examines the circumstances in which children first explore alcohol and what this can tell public health professionals keen to counter the most damaging effects.  

The Department of Health guidelines are clear; children aged 16 or less should not drink alcohol. But they do and many parents fear absolute prohibition will lead to secret drinking and a loss of trust in the relationship. It would appear to be common sense, too, that a child drinking a small amount of watered-down wine with a family meal would be likely to develop quite different later adolescent behaviours to a child swigging vodka with friends in a bus shelter. Common sense it might be, but there has been little robust research around this.

The broad aim of our research was to examine influences on the emergence of exploratory drinking at the start of adolescence. We focused on two specific questions:

  1. Are parents’ and friends’ drinking important influences on drinking among 11 year-olds?
  2. What is the role of perceptions of risk, expectancies towards alcohol, parental supervision and family relationships on the likelihood of 11 year-olds drinking?

We made use of the detailed and rich data available in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which has followed the lives of nearly 20,000 children born between 2000-2002.

Drinking habits

At age 11, just under 14% of MCS children said they drank alcohol. Based on their own reported drinking frequency, parents were grouped into three categories: non-drinkers, light to moderate drinkers and heavy or binge drinkers. Around 20% of mums and 15% of dads were non-drinkers. Around 60% of mums and dads were light or moderate drinkers. About a quarter of dads and just over a fifth of mums were heavy or binge drinkers. When asked whether their friends drank, 78% of MCS children said “no”.

The children were also asked about other risky behaviours such as smoking or truanting and what they felt about their family. These factors were taken into account to enable us to focus in on the effect of parents’ or friends’ drinking.

Compared to children whose mums did not drink, children whose mums were light or moderate drinkers had a 60% increased risk of drinking at 11, while those whose mums were heavy or binge drinkers had an 80% increased risk. A father’s drinking appeared to have about half as much impact, regardless of whether he was a light to moderate or heavy/binge drinker. Children who said their friends drank were more than four times as likely to drink themselves as those children with friends who didn’t drink.

Home life and perceptions of alcohol

When we looked at home life, predictably those children who reported being happy were less likely to drink than those who reported frequent family battles. Where there were low levels of parental supervision combined with a dad who drank heavily, the risk of the child drinking was, again, higher.

A child’s view about the harms of alcohol also seemed to be an important factor. The more dangerous a child thought alcohol to be, the less likely they were to drink. Children who did not see drinking alcohol as a risky activity and who also had a heavy drinking mum were much more likely to be drinking alcohol at 11.

It is not possible to make statements regarding cause and effect with this sort of study, but the numbers do show us a strong association between 11 year-olds drinking and their friends’ and mothers’ behaviour. Family relationships, perceptions of risk and expectations regarding alcohol are important, too, as are some more general characteristics of the family unit.

So, what does this tell us about the risks of drinking at 11 and how to counter those risks? The fact that likely causes of early drinking are multiple, means that counter measures need, similarly, to be aimed at a number of different aspects of a child’s life. One size will not fit all.

Advice, information and guidance

Children certainly need to have a better understanding of the risks involved in drinking. Schools and parents are clearly well placed to provide the best advice, information and guidance to children of this age, but these robust new findings can play an important role in helping to shape the focus of those discussions.

Whilst the vast majority of children at the age of eleven are yet to explore alcohol, investigating in more detail the context in which children drink – who they drink with, where, when, what they drink and how they acquire alcohol – could help inform effective policy and alcohol harm prevention strategies to mitigate the risk associated with drinking as a young person.

Public health policy should take all these factors into account, driving measures that would address parents and peer groups, popular perceptions, marketing and advertising, pricing, availability and the enforcement of age restrictions.

Further information

What influences 11-year-olds to drink? Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Alice Goisis, Amanda Sacker, Noriko Cable, Richard G Watt and Annie Britton and is published in BMC Public Health.

  • Read the press release and access contact details if you are a member of the media
  • Listen to Yvonne’s talk on the research at a recent ICLS Policy Seminar
  • Find out about forthcoming ICLS Policy seminar on Tuesday, 21 June 2016, focusing on what evidence longitudinal/lifecourse studies can bring to the current debate on “safe” drinking levels and what drives people to start, stop or cut back on drinking. Email icls@ucl.ac.uk for more information and to be added to the mailing list.

Photo credit: Jes