Image: Kjersti Magnussen
A study by the University of Southern California found that the more pictures a child sees on social media of their friends drinking, the more likely they are to do so. But parents also play a vital part in influencing children’s relationship with alcohol. Here, the Alcohol Education Trust explains some myths and facts about underage drinking, and offers guidance on talking about alcohol in an age-appropriate way
73% of children aged 13 to 17 say their parents are the number one influence on whether they drink alcohol – so what you do and say matters. Talking to your children about alcohol will be very important when it comes to keeping them safe. Here are some common myths and important facts you should understand to make sure you say the right thing.
Myth: Most British teenagers drink alcohol.
Fact: Underage drinking gets a lot of attention, so it’s easy to see why you (and your kids) might feel like everyone is getting drunk. But the fact is that most school children in Europe, including the UK, have never had a whole drink. And in 2013, 61% of British 11-15 year olds said they had never tried alcohol.
Myth: More young people are drinking now than in the past.
Fact: It’s actually the other way around – underage drinking is decreasing. In 2001, 26% of 11-15 year olds drank alcohol regularly. By 2016, this number had fallen to 6% of 11-15-year-olds in England admitted they drank at least once a week.
Myth: It’s not really a problem if teens drink.
Fact: Under-15s who drink alcohol regularly:
- Are seven times more likely to be in a car crash due to drinking.
- Are 11 times more likely to be accidentally injured after drinking.
- Have GCSE predictions that are up to 20 points lower than their peers.
And even occasional drinking can have serious consequences, if it’s to excess. Teens who get drunk are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, more vulnerable to having their valuables stolen or lost and could get in trouble with the police.
When should I start talking about drinking?
Some parents worry that bringing up alcohol too early will make their children want to try it, but because kids see people drinking from a young age, they’re often curious about it already. Parents are in a good position to make sure their children have the facts about alcohol and can make sensible choices.
There’s no perfect age to start talking about alcohol – the key point is to make sure you have the facts and gear your conversation to your child’s age.
It’s illegal to give alcohol to a child under five, but if you drink at home your children are likely to start asking you about it from an early age.
‘Kids’ bodies aren’t able to process alcohol’
It’s tempting to just say ‘wait until you’re older,’ but it’s probably also worth explaining that kids’ bodies aren’t able to process alcohol.
On average, UK children have their first whole drink when they’re 13, so it’s important to talk to them about drinking before this point. Try to make sure they understand units (the measure health professionals use when giving guidance on responsible drinking), alcohol’s effects on the body and the risks associated with drinking at a young age.
Even if you think (or know) your child has no interest in drinking, it’s still important to talk to them about it. Age 13 is sometimes described as a ‘tipping point’ when young people’s attitudes towards alcohol change, so you’ve got the best chance of influencing their views on drinking if you talk about it before then. Try to put conversations about drinking in context with other things they’ll need to know about as they grow up.
As your children get older, you’ll need to find a balance between giving them freedom and protecting them. You can’t be by their side all the time, of course, but with communication and trust you can help them make good decisions and learn from any mistakes. At this age, it’s crucial to make sure they know they can come to you for advice when needed.
Older teenagers often experiment with alcohol and many will be drinking regularly, but they are less likely to develop bad habits if you’ve been a good and open role model. Make sure you’ve shared important practical safety tips, like never leaving drinks unattended, leaving parties with a trusted friend and never getting a lift with someone who has been drinking. Research shows that parents who know where their children go and what they get up to are less likely to have kids who drink, so try to stay involved in your child’s life and aware of what they’re doing.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: January 2016
Updated: May 2018
 HSCIC Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England 2016 report, published 2017.