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Dr. David Anderson: 'Understanding Teen Drinking Cultures in America'

As we transition into Alcohol Awareness Month, I reflect upon our nation’s progress – and lack of progress - made with alcohol abuse issues.   Over the last several decades, we have had reductions in alcohol-related automobile crashes; we also see reductions in high school students’ alcohol consumption and heavy drinking.  However, we see college students’ alcohol use, being drunk, and heavy drinking remain virtually unchanged. The progress made, or lack thereof, seems elusive.

What is behind this limited progress?  I believe one key element is limited communication on alcohol issues.  While we have messages permeating our society about alcohol, a recent study I co-authored found that over 70% of the messages heard by teens about alcohol, whether at school or from parents, were prescriptive or top-down.  Generally, these included ‘it’s illegal’, ‘don’t do it’, ‘it’s wrong’, ‘it’s harmful’, and ‘don’t drink and drive.’  While technically this is communication, it is neither interactive nor particularly engaging.  

Another finding from that study found that 39% of parents interviewed in a national telephone poll reported they did not know what messages their teenage children heard from peers about alcohol; 18% of parents didn’t know what messages were heard from teachers or counselors. 

From my experience with high school teens and college students, these young people are eager to talk about alcohol, with the caveat that there be dialog and interaction. The world of teens and young adults is a challenging one, but is best served with understanding, honesty, and forthrightness. To help youth in their lives, and particularly with their transitions (such as the transition into and out of high school or college), acknowledge that these are high stress times.  It’s important to identify – for them and for ourselves as we model this behavior – healthy ways of addressing stress.  Query others about their lives in anticipation of or in response to high stress times or events. Attempt to understand, and support, during these stressful times; perhaps that would help redirect much of the coping behavior that often includes heavy alcohol consumption.

As we described in our final report on Understanding Teen Drinking Cultures in America, a distinction exists between The Teen’s World and the Role of Alcohol; the former includes what we call underlying as well as intrinsic factors, while alcohol addresses extrinsic and contextual factors.  What this means is that our societal efforts to address alcohol abuse typically deals with the more easily accessed elements linked to alcohol, what we see as the “outer layers”; while important and necessary, these efforts are not sufficient to address, adequately, what is really going on within the lives of teens.  These more central issues, such as feeling loved and listened to, having a sense of purpose, having balance in life, feeling capable, and having strong core values, require a different set of strategies for making a difference for the teens, and concurrently with their choices about alcohol. 

Incumbent upon each of us, as we transition through this Alcohol Awareness Month in 2014, is to reaffirm our commitment to look at how we deal with alcohol within our families, educational institutions, workplaces, and community.  To do an honest assessment is challenging and often unsettling.  However, to make true progress, it’s an important step.  The tools and resources are available when we want them.

The study referred to is Understanding Teen Drinking Cultures in America, authored by David S. Anderson, Ph.D. and Hugh Gusterson, Ph.D., professors at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.  The study was funded by a grant from The Century Council.   See

This post was authored by David Anderson, Ph.D. Dr. Anderson is a Education Advisory Board member.

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility ( or any member.*

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