The news of yet another sweet, inexpensive alcoholic beverage hitting the market — this time with an even higher alcohol content than others — is a reminder to parents of teenagers that we can’t overlook alcohol when we warn them about substances that can cause them harm. As a parent of teens, I know it’s frustrating, but necessary, to explain why a product many kids their age think of as relatively harmless can now more easily land them in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
The evidence of the real harm that prescription drugs, vaping and marijuana pose to youth is clear and well documented. But in our effort to address these problems, we may have lost sight of alcohol’s continuous streak as the most commonly used — or, more accurately, misused — addictive substance among young people. After a long period of steady decline in drinking among adolescents, the most recent national data show that the decline has stopped and we’re starting to see a gradual increase in risky forms of alcohol use, like binge drinking. By the 12th grade, nearly two out of every three students (61.5%) have consumed alcohol (more than just a few sips) and 17% have had five or more drinks in a row within the past month.
Many of the products on the market today have a very high alcohol content, but tasty fruit flavors brilliantly mask the bad taste of alcohol and, due to their packaging and marketing, they don’t carry the same unhealthy reputation that many young people associate with beer and might want to avoid. At the same time, the harsh realities of alcohol’s negative effects on kids’ health and safety are obscured by their cool packaging, appealing advertising, ubiquity in stores and by their inescapable presence in kids’ social media feeds and celebrity and influencer endorsements.
Despite feeling incredibly overwhelmed by all that transpired this year, parents can’t afford to let this one slip by. Fittingly, April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, a good time to talk to teens about the dangers of alcohol. There’s no need to lecture your kids, spy on them or come down hard on the first sign of risk. Rather, try to be aware of how teens today drink – fewer are doing so, but those who do tend to drink more intensely, and may be choosing products that do not clearly resemble the beer, wine or hard liquor you’re used to. Instead, they might look like soda, fruit juice or candy (yes, there are alcohol edibles that look like gummy bears); alcohol can even be vaped or snorted.
Try to find opportunities within your daily interactions to talk about drinking and how it’s especially problematic for kids because of its effects on their developing brains and bodies. Convey the importance of delaying use for as long as possible and how their health and safety is what’s most important to you. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about alcohol, so it’s really important for parents to know what decades of research has demonstrated, despite popular misconceptions.
Regardless of where a child is along the continuum, from having not yet shown any interest in drinking to struggling with an alcohol use disorder, my organization and others have plenty of helpful information, tips and supportive resources to turn to. Parents don’t have to navigate this on their own. As adults, we have an obligation to protect our kids from a powerful industry that does all it can to put its economic interests above the health interests of our children and our families.