Verity Johnson: Navigating the line between party and paralytic requires maturity

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Hard drinking is accepted as just part of our culture so the culture must change. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hard drinking is accepted as just part of our culture so the culture must change. Photo / Dean Purcell

As a teenager, there is a huge pressure to accept the cool pragmatism of "this is how it is" when it comes to binge drinking.

Hard drinking is accepted as just part of our culture. So challenging the way we drink means you come close to being called a crusty. A bore. Dull. And to generation Self-Obsession, me, this is terrifying.

But there is a problem with teenage binge drinking, and especially among girls.

The Alcohol HealthWatch and Women's Health Action report, released earlier this month, showed young women are drinking more than ever, and any other woman. According to research from ALAC in 2005, 40 per cent of under 17s binge drink. In 2012, Massey University research showed that 28 per cent of 16- to 17-year-old girls binge drink.

So yes, there's a problem.

Now, I'm totally in favour of going out for some drinks and a good night. But I'm not keen on those nights of getting wasted, vomiting outside Macca's, and passing out.

So how do we navigate the line between party and paralytic? We need dramatic social changes in how we see alcohol. This comes from education, family attitudes and challenging social norms.

So these new laws on the 18th can lay down whatever they want. If the laws are going to work, they need to be accepted. And for us to accept that binge drinking isn't hot, we need fundamental social change.

I would start with three norms.

First, a lot of girls drink to boost their confidence. We think alcohol makes us interesting, fun and flirty. It's ironic really, most drinking nights end in crying and bitching about our best friends.

But we continue to see alcohol as the key to confidence. This isn't healthy. The Alcohol HealthWatch report found that women who see alcohol this way are more likely to binge drink. It's quite logical, if alcohol brings us confidence, we want it by the bucket.

We need to remodel alcohol. Traditionally, in Italy, Spain and Portugal, alcohol isn't magical.

It's not mystical. And it's not going to get you laid. (Does anyone find the subtle complexity of "wanna root?" attractive?) We need a similarly demystified view of alcohol.

Secondly, we need to stop seeing alcohol as a badge of maturity. Alcohol in NZ is a rite of passage. I try to forget high school. But it's not far away enough to be suppressed yet, and memories of trying to impress older guys resurface regularly.

I'm sure you've done the same. Talked up to some guy how much you can handle. It turns out he's Russian, and you knew you were a lightweight anyway, but you can't back down now ...

Next thing you remember, you're waking up under a pizza box.

If we want to stop teenagers OD-ing on the booze, we need to stop painting it as the sign of maturity. Advertising is important here. But it's also important we change what it means to be "mature". We need to stress, particularly in schools and families, that maturity doesn't come from a yardy.

Lastly, parents need to take a look at themselves. Twenty-three per cent of New Zealand adults binge drink once a week, according to research from ALAC in 2005.

If parents are showing that binge drinking is how you have fun, then I'm not surprised teenagers aren't sipping OJ. The actions of our parents are crucially important in shaping our behaviour.

That makes families and adult friends the start for serious reform of teenage binge drinking.

So governments can pass all the laws they want. If they really want to make a difference, it needs to start at home.

Verity Johnson is a Melbourne-based Kiwi student.

- NZ Herald

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