Should parents allow their teenage children to drink alcohol? Restaurants in Germany can legally sell alcohol to a teenager after his sixteenth birthday, and French children drink wine with dinner in the home starting at an early age. But U.S. parents who try to follow this relaxed European example, believing it fosters a healthier attitude towards alcohol, should be careful about giving alcohol to their children -- it may increase the likelihood that they binge drink in college.
That's the latest finding of researcher Caitlin Abar of the Prevention Research and Methodology Center at Pennsylvania State University. At this year's meeting of the Society for Prevention Research, she suggested that parents practice a zero-tolerance policy in the home and said that there is no scientific basis to the common belief that prohibiting alcohol turns it into a "forbidden fruit" and encourages abuse.
In 31 states, parents can legally serve alcohol to their underage children. Though U.S. teenagers drink less often than adults, they tend to drink more at a time -- on average, five drinks in a sitting -- according to Ralph Hingson of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. About 87 percent of college students try alcohol, and 40 percent say that they regularly engage in some type of binge drinking.
To see if parents prohibiting alcohol might be an underlying cause of binge drinking, Abar surveyed almost 300 college freshmen and compared their drinking habits to their parents' attitudes towards alcohol. Those students whose parents never allowed them to drink -- about half of the group -- were significantly less likely to drink heavily in college, regardless of gender.
Moreover, "the greater number of drinks that a parent had set as a limit for the teens, the more often they drank and got drunk in college," said Abar. Whether the parents themselves drank, on the other hand, had little effect on predicting their children's behaviors.
Further research is needed to confirm the preliminary study, said Abar. For one thing, she did not separate students who specifically drank with their parents at meals from those whose parents allowed their children to drink both inside and outside of the house.
A previous study in 2004 by Kristie Foley of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina showed that teenagers who received alcohol from their parents for parties were up to three times more likely to binge drink within a month, while those who drank only with the family were less likely to binge. So the context in which a parent provides alcohol may be key.
The difference could also be due to some other factor -- parents who prohibit their children from drinking may simply provide more structure in general, for example.
Furthermore, the sample of college students is not necessarily representative of the entire U.S. population, said Alexander Wagenaar, a social epidemiologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has charted the effects of raising the drinking age for nearly three decades. The survey group in Abar's sample was composed almost entirely of white students who lived on campus.
Wagenaar finds the data convincing, though, because previous research uncovered a similar effect in low-income African-American and Hispanic students. A 2007 study of 1,388 children by Kelli Komro of the University of Florida showed that schoolchildren who were permitted alcohol in the home by their parents in sixth grade were up to three times more likely to get drunk and almost twice as likely to drink heavily (five or more drinks) at ages 12-14.
Researcher Margaret Kerr of Orebro University in Sweden discussed her own experimental evidence in favor of prohibiting alcohol in the home. She and her colleagues have designed a no-drinking intervention program that, in a pilot study published in a scientific journal earlier this year, cut teen drunkenness by 35 percent.
Materials provided by Inside Science News Service / American Institute of Physics. Original written by Devin Powell. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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