Verity Johnson: Blame parents for teen binge drinking culture

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Many teenagers use fake IDs to flaunt the drinking age laws. Photo / APN
Many teenagers use fake IDs to flaunt the drinking age laws. Photo / APN

Families should teach their teens how to drink responsibly, writes student journalist Verity Johnson.

Red-cheeked amusement at plastic breasts is something I associate with 13-year-old boys. That was until I was forced to attend a dinner party with my parents.

Apparently 50-year-old men find the synthetic sensations equally appealing. But then again they weren't responsible for their actions - Mr Jack Daniel was. These parents (or grandparents?) were so trashed that they thought the fake breasts suited them.

When we look at the underage bingeing epidemic, does anyone else think that it is not solely the teenagers' fault? Is it possible they are copying what they see around them?

Teenage binge drinking is a sticky one. Too many teenagers have been cut down. This cannot continue. We need to do something. The approaching conscience vote in Parliament has sharpened the focus on this.

But raising the drinking age won't work. It just reflects the lack of understanding about why teenagers drink. The current legal age is ignored, why would raising this change anything?

According to the parliamentary library, in 2003 the average age to start drinking in New Zealand was 13.6. That's a whopping 4.4 years under the current age limit. There is a clear disregard for the legal limits. Therefore increasing it will have little effect on a population that is determined to drink.

Fake IDs are easy to come by. In 2009 it was discovered that one Auckland teenager had sold hundreds of them to teenagers at more than 15 Auckland schools. If I had wanted to get a fake ID I could have; they have become the norm of teenage life.

If the drinking age is raised, more teenagers will buy fake IDs. We haven't tackled the motivations behind drinking, and so the problem will continue.

And believing that raising the age will send a moral message is, well, optimistic. The influence of friends and family is far more important to teenagers than the Government's position.

Look at drugs: New Zealand is the ninth highest cannabis consumer in the world. Cannabis' illegality doesn't appear to be doing much.

What we know about people is that they learn from others. In psychology the social learning theory states that children learn from observing the behaviour of others. The likelihood of replicating the behaviour is increased if the child likes the person. We pick up habits from people we admire - parents or friends.

If parents spend nights in table top conga lines then this normalises the behaviour for kids. Growing up, kids learn right and wrong from their parents. If parents down Jack like it's Just Juice, kids think it is OK to do so too. It also means that parents banning drinking won't work. Not with that stench of hypocrisy.

What about society? We have a drinking culture. Remember (or rather don't remember) New Year's? You're supposed to have been so drunk that you can't remember whether you hooked up with a person or a tree.

And sports? Winning, losing, drawing, throwing, or anything to do with sports equals a booze-up.

Our society says to be drunk is to have fun. It's a little naive to expect that teenagers will interpret BYO as bring your orange juice. We are told that vomiting into a gutter is the definition of a good time.

If we actually want to reduce teenage bingeing, we need to change what society demands. We need to show that drinking responsibly is the way to go. After all, drinking is going to happen. Moderating it is the challenge.

According to Italy's Permanent Observatory on Alcohol and Youth study, Italian teens advocate drinking responsibly. They look down on teens who binge drink. Where is the difference between New Zealand and Italy apart from the sexy accent? Italian families teach their teenagers to drink responsibly.

Alcohol is a neutral substance, but in New Zealand it is a ticket to confidence and social charisma. What insecure teen can resist that mystique?

Teenagers can be rash, insecure and excited by growing up. Teens are alcoholic virgins burning at the touch of glassy flesh. Parents need to recognise this. They can't just whip out the booze for teens and say she'll be right.

We definitely can't ban teens from drinking and rely on the sober fairy to keep the RTDs away. Both ways will find us peeling people off the floor.

Adults need to help teach teenagers. Set a good example at home. Be a mentor not a tormentor. Otherwise teens might not make it to adulthood.

- NZ Herald

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