Better understanding why very young people start drinking has been a recent focus for the team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL. Research published earlier this year by the team showed that one in seven 11 year-olds said they had drunk alcohol and indicated strong ties with having friends who drank and also mums who drank. Now the researchers, led by Yvonne Kelly, have taken the work a step further to see which 11 year-olds are binge drinking or getting drunk. The work will be presented next month at an event for those interested in the links between alcohol and health.
Young people who drink heavily do worse at school, are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours such as smoking and taking drugs and die earlier than their non drinking peers. That’s been shown. But when we talk about young people, we are mostly referring to people in their late teens and early 20s.
There has been little research looking at drinking among very young adolescents, nor has much been done to look at what factors influence heavy drinking in our children and young people.
Closing the evidence gap
Our work using the Millennium Cohort Study has gone some way to closing that gap in the evidence we need to help us gain a clearer picture of just who is drinking alcohol at a very young age and what might be behind that.
Having looked at how widespread the problem might be, how family and friends fit into the picture and how 11 year-olds perceive the risks, we wanted to dig a little more deeply and focus more closely on the group of children who are binge drinking and getting drunk.
With a study as large as the Millennium Cohort Study, we have detailed information on more than 11,000 children. This means we can look at the individual and family factors connected to the issue in a meaningful and robust way.
It was reassuring to find that only 1.2 per cent (around 120) of 11 year-olds in the study reported having been drunk, with 0.6 per cent (60) of them saying they had drunk 5 or more alcoholic drinks in a single episode.
Many would argue though, that, given the serious health consequences associated with drinking at a young age, the fact that one in every hundred of UK 11 year-olds has been drunk at some point is still a matter of considerable concern.
Who is drunk at 11?
So who amongst our 11 year-old children is getting drunk? Our analysis showed that boys were twice as likely as girls to report being drunk, as were children with social and emotional problems. Truanting children were six times more likely and smokers 15 times more likely to report heavy drinking.
Interesting to us was the fact that neither mum’s nor dad’s drinking seemed to have any influence here. This was interesting in its own right, but also because our earlier research showed quite a strong link between 11 year-olds who drank any alcohol at all and mums who drank moderately or heavily. Heavy drinking was, however, reported by children who said they did not have a close relationship with their mum.
A link that did stay strong as we dug further into this question of who drinks heavily and gets drunk, was that with friends who drank. In other words, children who had friends who drank alcohol were 5 times more likely to get drunk themselves than those children who did not have drinking friends.
Perception of risk
The children we looked at were considerably less likely to get drunk if they believed strongly that drinking 1-2 alcoholic drinks each day could be harmful. So, a heightened perception of the potential harms of drinking alcohol were key here.
Our findings seem to mirror those of a recent school-based survey of 11-13 year olds in the UK, which reported 0.4 per cent had binge drunk. They also seem to point to the fact that heavy drinking in this age group is most likely to occur in peer group settings.
As the Millennium Cohort Study continues to track these children in years to come, we will gain an even clearer understanding of the consequences of heavy drinking at such a young age.
For all those concerned with the health and wellbeing of children today and in the future, there are some pointers here about areas for focus in tackling the problem including helping children understand the potential harms and empowering them to say no to alcohol regardless of any putative benefits they or their friends might perceive.
Request an invitation to the Alcohol and Health policy seminar which takes place on June 21, 2016.
Photo credit: Thom Sanders