Teen drinking: Overall it's down, but binge drinking is getting more extreme

Binge drinking: A new study of high school seniors' alcohol consumption finds evidence of extreme binge drinking growing among a few.

By , Contributing blogger

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    Binge drinking has long been associated with college students, but a new study finds that high schoolers are also engaging in binge drinking.
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In the midst of the never-ending, drama-driven news cycle, it can be difficult to keep priorities straight. Terrorism soaks up tons of ink, but kills very few Americans on an annual basis; traffic accidents claim far more victims but are viewed as a normal part of modern life.

So too has teenage binge drinking receded from popular consideration – evading the 21-year drinking age has long been something of a national youth sport, and getting a fake ID remains a rite of passage on college campuses from coast to coast.

A new University of Michigan Ann Arbor-Penn State study published this week in JAMA Pediatrics puts a fine point on the problem and its consequences. A sample of 16,000 high school seniors across the contiguous United States from 2005 to 2011 found that 20 percent reported binge drinking (five or more drinks at a sitting) within the past two weeks of being surveyed. Ten percent reported extreme binge-drinking of 10 or more drinks; and 5 percent reported consuming a (literally) staggering 15 or more drinks in a sitting.

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The context for these stats: approximately 5,000 alcohol-related deaths a year of people 21 and younger, and an estimated $62 billion annual cost related to problems stemming from underage drinking.

The study (which excluded high school dropouts) found some trends among those who drink: Midwesterners and Northeasterners drank the most, boys drank more than girls, religious students drank less than others, and rural students drank more – rural boys, far more.

The study seems destined to kick off debate from coast to coast, and it has already been picked up far and wide. Stories highlighted a scary rising trend: Bloomberg wrote about binge drinking "turning extreme," USA Today framed it as "1 in 10 high school seniors are extreme binge drinking," and Reuters wrote about extreme binge drinking being "common," which ironically might send an unhealthy message because the study found that binge drinking was more pronounced among students who believe their friends are likely to drink. But these reports all seem to focus on the slight increase in extreme binge drinking and miss the study's findings, which suggest a slight drop in overall numbers of kids drinking from 2005 to 2011.

Largely missing from the discussion at this point are practical solutions, which may be because solutions inevitably divide public opinion; ideas range from a complete zero-tolerance ban on alcohol enforced with vigilant supervision and strict penalties to liberalized drinking laws that would recreate Europe's more tolerant (and, some would argue, more supervised) drinking culture for young adults.

One place to start might be sitting down with your teen and watching a few alcohol-focused episodes of the recently-canceled show "Intervention," which is a profoundly deglamorized and often painful look at the ravages of addiction and extreme alcohol consumption. The connection between the seemingly joyous side of alcohol (the word "partying" may be at the heart of it) and actual impact on one's body and mind can be surprisingly elusive if you're not looking for it.

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