Comment »Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 7:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Scientists can act as advisers to the public, but advice must be framed in such a way that the public will want to receive it. So when I read the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) advice on teenage drinking, I couldn’t help but think You’re Doing It Wrong.

The AAAS, as part of their Science Inside Alcohol Project, offer parents and their teenage children five reasons why drinking at your high school prom may not be a good idea:

  1. You might not remember the night.
  2. You might do something you don’t want to.
  3. You might get in to a fight.
  4. You might be sick.
  5. You might get a hangover.

Along with each reason is a scientific explanation as to why alcohol has these effects. For example, the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for storing memory, is not yet fully developed in teens. Thus, say the AAAS, even a small amount of alcohol can cause teens to forget the previous night or even black-out completely.

Well yeah. But these things don’t just happen to under-age drinkers – anyone who has drunk more than they should has probably experience at least one or two of the things from the list. As such, it comes off as a little patronising.

I’m not suggesting that teenagers, or indeed anyone, need to drink alcohol in order to have a good time. Teenagers will drink though, especially if drinking is seen as a dark and forbidden activity. Simple spouting “alcohol is bad, m’kay?” like South Park’s Mr Garrison is not the way to promote responsible drinking.

Much better would be encouraging parents to introduce their teenagers to alcohol in a safe and controlled environment – wine with a meal, for example. This is just my own opinion of course, as after a bit of time searching I’ve failed to find any studies that support my viewpoint. Part of the problem is that Googling anything about under-age drinking brings up so much anti-drinking propaganda that it’s hard to find a balanced and reasonable approach.

Alcohol is a drug that can have dangerous and even lethal effects. It’s also enjoyed responsibly by many adults and even some teenagers. The US’s puritanical approach to alcohol is far too extreme – how a drinking age of 21 but a voting age of 18 is in anyway justifiable, I’ll never understand. It seems that the AAAS hasn’t really considered the usefulness of its advice, instead choosing to play it safe with “Just Say No”. Which always works so well.

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