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On average, UK children have their first alcoholic drink at 13 and, by just over 14, hundreds have been drunk for the first time.* A survey of 15 and 16 year olds carried out recently by the Drinkaware Trust** revealed that:
Aside from the health risks associated with underage drinking, drinking to get drunk - as many teens do - means huge numbers are risking their sexual health. Experts say 14 and 15 year olds who drink are more likely to engage in sexual activity - with 11% of 15 to 16 year olds admitting to unprotected sex while drunk.
These are not the only problems. Chris Soreks of Drinkaware says: "There are strong links between drinking high levels of alcohol and youth offending, teenage pregnancy, truancy and exclusion from school." Nearly half of all 10 to 17 years olds who drink once a week or more admit to some sort of criminal activity or disorderly behaviour, around two-thirds get into an argument and about a fifth get into a fight.
And despite age restrictions, 10% of 12 to 15 years-olds say they buy their own alcohol, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies. 63% of 16-17 year olds have bought their own booze in pubs, nightclubs and bars. Beer and lager are the most popular drinks among under 18s, with spirits, wine and alcopops also popular.
Alcohol is a drug but a widely used drug. The research shows that lots of teenagers are exposed to alcohol and that this often happens outside of the home. With that in mind, the best thing a parent can do to prevent underage drinking is to talk - and listen - to teenagers in a way that encourages them to behave more responsibly. Get the message across that, while alcohol is a part of life and can make pepole feel nice and relaxed, it's still a drug, and too much at once can be dangerous.
According to Drinkaware research, 40% of parents thought 14 and a half was the right age to discuss the subject – but experts say it's better to get in even earlier. UK teenagers are drinking much more than their parents did - twice what teenagers were drinking 20 years ago, says Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of the West of England in Bristol. With that in mind, it’s vital to bring up the subject early, around the age of 11-13.
TV programmes and magazines can be a good place to start. If a celebrity has been photographed drunk after a night out, talk to your child about their perception of this, and whether they think it's glamorous or embarrassing. It’s an important conversation to have.
"I use soaps, like Hollyoaks or Eastenders, to talk about how alcohol can alter characters' personalities and cause them to regret their actions when drunk," says Sarah Kelly, 45, from Staines, Kent, mum to Louise, 16 and Kate, 14.
Explain why alcohol can be dangerous and what problems it can cause, without demonising it. Teaching moderation is the key, says Alcohol Concern Chief Executive Don Shenker. Research shows some teenagers believe five glasses per night is normal, but this is bingeing and represents a dangerous level. Discuss alcohol measurements, and how to keep track of what is and isn't a safe level of consumption. You can use the Drinkaware website for tips, information and advice on talking to teens about alcohol.
Teach your child about sensible drinking - pacing drinks, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and always eating a decent meal before drinking. Warn them how easy it is to go over their limits, make a fool of themselves and compromise their safety or do something they might regret later. Offer your child the chance to ask any questions so they can come to you if they ever need any help.
Parents' drinking habits are an important factor in the way children experience alcohol. Almost half (49%) of 16 and 17 year-olds questioned by the Drinkaware charity said they had seen their parents drunk, and therefore think this approach to booze is normal.
A recent Finnish study found that where parents drank a lot, their teenagers tended to as well - either following their parent's example or because drinking made the parent more lax in monitoring their children's comings and goings, and more heavy-handed in disciplining them. That, in turn, increased the children's likelihood of drinking and getting drunk.
Look at your own behaviour around drink. Do you come home from work and reach for a bottle? Drink every day? Only feel relaxed with a glass in your hand? These gestures send a powerful message to your children, so try and cut down. Start by checking out the Drinkaware drink diary. Also: "Have three alcohol-free days a week," advises Dr Nick Sheron, liver specialist at Southampton University School of Medicine. "Not drinking mid-week automatically cuts down your units and reduces all alcohol-associated health risks."