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Concern over survey findings into children drinking since the pandemic

What's the Harm? campaign

Alcohol before 18 - What's the harm?

Posted 18/05/21

New figures for teenage alcohol consumption suggest that 9 in 10 North East children aged 15 or younger are not drinking regularly – but worryingly 1 in 3 who drink are drinking more since the start of the pandemic.

Alcohol services and a grieving mum whose daughter died after drinking alcohol aged 16 have responded with alarm to results from the survey by Balance, which also show that strong spirits like vodka are frequently consumed. The findings give pause for thought to parents thinking about supplying alcohol for teenage children this summer.

And after a year in which the pandemic has disrupted the lives of many teenagers, teachers have backed Chief Medical Officer guidance for parents to help children avoid alcohol as long as possible at a crucial time in their education.

While most alcohol comes from the family home, alcohol is still sold at pocket money prices from shops and supermarkets. It is possible to buy 2.5 litres of 7.5% strong cider for less than five pounds – the equivalent of nearly 19 shots of vodka. See link

The rolling survey of 11-17 year olds from Balance comes as the regional alcohol programme launches its “What’s the Harm?” campaign aimed at providing parents with information about the risks of under-age drinking. Among the findings are:

• Nearly half (49%) of North East children 15 or younger have never had a drink and only 1 in 10 (10%) are drinking weekly or more.
• Around 1 in 3 North East children who drink (36%) are drinking more since the pandemic.
• Spirits such as vodka are the main choice of alcohol for around 1 in 4 (26%) North East children aged under 18 who drink.
• For children who drink, parents or older family members are by far the main source of alcohol for nearly 4 in 10 children.

Sue Taylor, Acting Head of Alcohol Policy for Fresh and Balance, said: “Every parent wants the best for their child and we have all seen during the pandemic the devastating impact of alcohol on physical and mental health.

“The reality is that most children don’t drink and we should not encourage them to. One of the biggest myths among parents is that providing children with alcohol can help them “handle” drinking when they’re older, but the evidence is clear that consuming alcohol at a young age can give children a taste for regular and heavier drinking.

“The fact is that alcohol is a harmful substance, like tobacco, and the longer we can delay our children from drinking alcohol the better. We also need action on alcohol marketing aimed at young people and on price - currently it is possible to drink the equivalent of 19 shots of vodka for less than a fiver.”

North Tyneside mum Joanne Good tragically lost her 16-year-old daughter Megan when she didn’t wake up on New Year’s Day 2014, after drinking alcohol at a friend’s party.

Commenting on the findings of the youth survey, Joanne said: “Losing Megan devastated our family, and I don’t ever want another parent to go through what we have been through. I think it’s so important to educate people from a young age about the dangers of alcohol and share real life experiences. I’ve been into schools and when the pupils hear what happened to Megan, it really makes them sit up and listen.

“I’m concerned that some teenagers say they’re drinking more alcohol since the pandemic. It’s really worrying to see that even children under 16 are drinking at such a young age.

“As a parent, I know myself what it’s like to have teenagers and they’re always going to want to try things, but alcohol is so normalised these days and it’s passed down through the generations. It doesn’t have to be that way. Alcohol is harming our young people. I know first-hand the tragic consequences it can have. Talk to your children, tell them about Megan. Don’t reinforce the “good” side of alcohol, be honest and open about the impact of alcohol on their safety and their health, both now and in the future.

“The fact that the young people surveyed say they’re drinking high strength spirits like vodka really worries me. Such strong drinks have a huge impact on adults, so drinking them from a young age is potentially setting them up for worse to come over the years. There are the obvious safety aspects, but these young people could also be facing a future of alcohol dependency and many other health issues.”

“Megan wasn’t drinking vodka, she wasn’t even very drunk – and she didn’t wake up. I’m begging people not to take the risk. No one thinks it will happen to them, but you just don’t know.”

Mr Jonathan Heath, Headteacher at John Spence Community High School in North Tyneside said: “We are all aware of the problems and the negative consequences on physical and mental health that alcohol can cause, especially after this last year.

“We want the very best for our children and young people, and for them to be the best they can be. That means growing up in good health, developing properly, having the best life chances and growing up as safe, as happy and successful as they can be. The reality though is that drinking during adolescence can have an impact on all of those things. Like drugs, drinking can get out of hand and have life-long consequences.

“The teenage years are a crucial time in lives, when good health, exercise, enough sleep and good focus all play a huge part, and alcohol is a substance which can have a dire effect upon mood, motivation and performance. That can impact on work and concentration at a crucial time in their education.

“That is why we fully support the Chief Medical Officer guidance that the safest and best approach for young people is an alcohol-free childhood, and we would encourage parents to talk to their children about alcohol and try to delay their drinking for as long as possible.”

Melanie Soutar manages the Matrix Young People's Drug and Alcohol Service in South Tyneside, which works with young people under the age of 18yrs. Melanie said “Children and young people have had the most difficult year of their lives; education, hobbies and friendships have been disrupted. The teenage years are a time when there are immense emotional challenges anyway and drinking alcohol at an early age can exacerbate a lot of anxieties, motivation and emotional difficulties.

“Many young people we work with get into difficult and sometimes dangerous situations due to excessive use of alcohol and the subsequent health and social implications arising from intoxication are extremely worrying.

“As a society we tend to minimise the dangers of alcohol and many assume that it is a natural pastime for young people and a “rite of passage”. However, we are underestimating the damage that alcohol is doing to our children and young people whilst breeding unhealthy habits for the future.

“Aside from the obvious medical and developmental concerns, alcohol makes young people hugely vulnerable not only to inhibited risky behaviours but also to those who exploit them.

“The findings of the Balance survey are worrying and reinforce what we see…that when young people under 18 consume alcohol, it is often to excess and with the aim of getting drunk. Parents might think providing a couple of alcoholic drinks might help them to drink responsibly, but the reality is that children and young people will often mix and share alcohol which is a concern.

“Parents need to be aware of the potential consequences of a young person getting intoxicated. It can mean a child being taken home by the police or to A&E, often finding themselves in unsafe situations. We appreciate the difficulties parents can have with teens in particular, and urge them if worried to seek support from services like Matrix.”

2020 saw alarming headlines about alcohol, with more people drinking at harmful levels, alcohol deaths rising, over 770,000 hospital admissions from alcohol, and the low mood and anxiety from alcohol adding to people’s mental health problems.

To find out the facts and the myths people can visit Whatstheharm.co.uk and download the free Parents Guide which can help parents have a conversation with their child about alcohol.

Alcohol and children: the facts:

Chief Medical Officer advice for parents is that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, if children drink alcohol, it should not be until at least the age of 15. If young people aged 15 to 17 years drink alcohol, it should always be with the guidance of a parent or carer or in a supervised environment.

Drinking, even at age 15 or older, can be hazardous to health. Children who drink increase their risk of involvement in a wide range of health and social problems.

Alcohol can affect all the different systems in the body and the fact that children’s organs are still developing can make them particularly vulnerable. We know that drinking alcohol can affect their liver, bones, hormones and even their growth. Children are smaller, which means alcohol’s effects work more quickly on them in the short-term. Alcohol poisoning can result in young people being admitted to hospital or worse.

Young people are not immune to the chronic diseases and conditions associated with excess alcohol consumption in adults, and deaths from liver disease are now occurring at younger ages.

Alcohol may increase feelings of depression. There is a relationship between adolescent alcohol use and mental health problem, as well as low mood and motivation which can affect performance at school.

Children who drink regularly are also more likely to smoke and take illegal drugs, have accidents and be involved in risk taking behaviours.