Despite tabloid scare stories about the binge-drinking generation, schoolchildren today are in fact drinking considerably less, considerably less often, than their predecessors.
However, today’s teenagers are more likely to drink in secret, without their parents’ knowledge.
Academics from Northumbria University and the University of Sunderland conducted a long-term research project into the drinking habits of more than 11,000 pupils in the north-east of England. From 1996 to 2010, they looked at how much, and how often, Year 10 and Year 8 pupils drank.
Their results, published in the latest edition of the Education and Health journal, show that rates of drinking among secondary-aged pupils have plummeted over the last 14 years.
While, in 1996, two-thirds of Year 10 pupils had drunk alcohol in the week before the survey, by 2010 that figure had almost halved. And, in 1996, more than a third of Year 10 pupils went out drinking at least two nights of every week. Fourteen years later, this had dropped to fewer than one in five.
Boys tended to be consistent in their choice of alcohol: beer and lager were their drinks of preference across the entire time period. Girls’ tastes, however, have changed: where they used to reach for the wine or the alcopops, they now opt for spirits.
The amount of alcohol consumed has also dropped significantly. The number of Year 10 boys binge-drinking – drinking between seven and 14 units of alcohol a week – decreased from 21 per cent in 1996 to 8 per cent in 2010. Similarly, the number of binge-drinking girls in Year 10 dropped from 20 per cent in 1996 to 7 per cent in 2010.
And, while one in 10 Year 8 pupils was binge-drinking in 1996, by 2010 there were almost no binge-drinkers in this age group.
This tallies with a Unicef study, published this year, which reveals that teenage drinking is decreasing internationally.
However, while teenagers are now drinking less, they are also drinking more secretively. As recently as 2006, almost three-quarters of Year 10 pupils and more than half of Year 8 pupils said that their parents knew that they were drinking. By 2010, fewer than half of Year 10 pupils and only a third of Year 8 pupils said that their parents were aware of their drinking habits.
The researchers suggest that this may be a consequence of improved personal, social and health education: teenagers and their parents are newly aware of the dangers of alcohol consumption. “It may be that children are becoming more clandestine at home in their drinking behaviour, for fear of parental disapproval,” they said.