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Study shows one in six children drink alcohol by age 14

Attempts by well-intentioned parents to promote moderate drinking could backfire

Mark Gould

Friday, 15 December 2017

One in six parents allow their children to drink alcohol by the age of 14, in a bid to introduce them to "sensible" drinking. But they could be storing problems for the future, according to a new study.*

With Christmas approaching, and wine more likely to be shared at the dinner table, the authors, writing in the Journal of Adolescent Health, say parents should heed the message from previous studies that children who start drinking early are more likely to fail at school, have behavioural difficulties and suffer alcohol problems in adulthood.

The analysis of 10,000 children born in the UK at the turn of the century, which is part of the Millennium Cohort Study, found that well-educated parents of white children were most likely to allow their children to drink at 14.

It reveals that parents of white children who were employed, had more educational qualifications, and who drank alcohol themselves, were more likely to allow their adolescent children to drink than unemployed parents, those with fewer educational qualifications, and ethnic minority parents.

The researchers, from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, and Pennsylvania State University, suggest that many parents are offering their children alcohol at an early age to teach them to drink responsibly.

By age 14, almost half the children said they had tried more than a few sips of alcohol but three years earlier only about one in seven had done so.

The study examined reports of parents’ drinking habits and attitudes to drinking, linking them to information on family structure, employment status and parents’ educational attainment.

Professor Jennifer Maggs, the study’s lead author, said: “Parents of socially advantaged children may believe that allowing children to drink will teach them responsible use or may in fact inoculate them against dangerous drinking. However, there is little research to support these ideas.”

“While social disadvantage predicts many long-term health problems, parents of socially advantaged children appear to view alcohol use as less risky," the report concludes.

Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “The chief medical officer recommends that an alcohol-free childhood is best, with children not drinking any alcohol before the age of 15. This is important guidance because alcohol can harm children given their bodies and brains are not yet fully developed.

“It is worrying to see that this advice may not be getting across to parents, who are trying to do their best to teach their children about alcohol. We need to see better guidance offered to parents via social marketing campaigns and advice from doctors and schools. Parents deserve to know they can have a positive impact, and can reduce health harms associated with young people drinking.”

However, in context, the report also notes that the proportion of children choosing to drink alcohol is at the lowest level in recent times, with only about one in six aged eight to 15 admitting to ever drinking alcohol.

Dr John Larsen, director of evidence and impact at Drinkaware, said children should not drink but parents should give advice to teenagers about alcohol and its effects. He encouraged them to keep the conversations “open and honest”.


* Maggs JL, Staff JA. Parents who allow early adolescents to drink. Journal of Adolescent Health, December 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.09.016

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