Alcohol use and related harm among adolescent males
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Monitoring young people’s alcohol consumption is important for preventing and reducing the occurrence of associated harms. Research points to poorer short- and long-term consequences as a result of earlier alcohol use, including the development of harmful drinking patterns and alcohol use disorder later in life.1,2,3 Official Australian guidelines state that, to reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health, people should not drink alcohol before the age of 18 (the legal purchasing age in Australia). This short article presents the findings of Australian research into the drinking behaviours of adolescent males, including recent and lifetime use, age of initiation, experience of associated harms, and patterns of use over time.
What’s the research about?
Ten to Men: The Australian Longitudinal Study on Male Health (Ten to Men) is a large-scale, national study with a focus on investigating and improving the health and wellbeing of males in Australia. Around 16,000 males aged 10–55 were recruited to the study and first interviewed in 2013/14. A second wave of data was collected in 2015/16. Analyses were conducted to determine if adolescent participants who reported early drinking (pre-18 years) in 2013/14, and who had turned 18 by 2015/16, reported different alcohol use outcomes in 2015/16 when compared to those who had not reported early drinking in 2013/14.
What are the main findings?
This research used data collected in 2013/14 and 2015/16 for the Ten to Men study from the ‘young men’ cohort.
Lifetime and recent use of alcohol
In 2013/14, 45% of Australian males aged 15–17 were estimated to have consumed alcohol. The average age of initiation among this group was 14.4 years. A slightly smaller proportion of 15–17 year olds (41%) were estimated to have drunk alcohol in the past year. This group most commonly drank alcohol less often than monthly (52%); in comparison, around one-third (31%) drank on a monthly basis, and around 17% drank at least weekly.
Past-year alcohol consumers most commonly drank 1–2 standard alcoholic beverages per drinking session (37%), with around one-quarter (24%) typically drinking 3–4 drinks per session. Around one in 10 Australian males aged 15–17 years typically consumed 10 or more standard drinks per session in 2013/14.
Adolescent males who typically drank more than four standard drinks per session (39%) were significantly more likely to experience certain alcohol-related harms compared to those drinking smaller volumes, including ‘blackouts’ (55% vs 13%, respectively) and injuries (21% vs 7%, respectively).
Alcohol use into adulthood
Just over half of the males interviewed in 2015/16 who had turned 18 (56%) were classified as ‘early drinkers’. In comparison to non-early drinkers, early drinkers were significantly more likely to have consumed alcohol in the past year (77% vs 97%, respectively). They were also significantly more likely to be consuming alcohol more frequently; over half (55%) of early drinkers were consuming alcohol on at least a weekly basis in 2015/16, compared to around one-quarter (27%) of non-early drinkers. Additionally, 47% of the early drinking group were consuming alcohol at moderate-to-high risk levels in 2015/16, according to the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test,4 compared to only 20% of non-early drinkers.
What do the findings mean?
All alcohol use is associated with risk of harm. Experimenting with alcohol and other substances is a part of the lives of many young people,5 but alcohol consumption among young people can result in particular adverse outcomes, including effects on neurological and cognitive development.6,7 In Australia, 13% of deaths among Australians aged 14–17 are alcohol-related, and around 200 Australians aged 15–24 are admitted to hospital due to alcohol-related causes each week.8
Although research points to declining rates of drinking among young Australians in general,9 this study’s findings indicate that a significant proportion of male adolescents are initiating and engaging in alcohol use. Many of this group are typically drinking at what might be considered low-risk levels; however, a minority are engaging in patterns of use associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing related harms, including relatively frequent alcohol use (i.e. weekly or more) and the consumption of high volumes (i.e. more than four standard drinks per session).
Australian teens and their families need to be educated about current Australian guidelines for young people regarding alcohol consumption (i.e. that alcohol use should be avoided before the age of 18). Recent research using data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) estimated that, in 2016, over one-quarter (28%) of Australian teens aged 16–17 had parental permission to drink at home.10 Additional research using LSAC data has shown that parent drinking, particularly frequent and heavy consumption, increases the likelihood of early adolescent drinking.11 The normalisation of alcohol use among young people, even in environments considered to be ‘safe’ (e.g. under supervision at home), needs to be challenged to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related harms among young Australians and the progression to – and maintenance of – risky alcohol use patterns later in life.
Further reading and related resources
- Drug education in schools
This paper outlines the Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s 2019 position on drug education in schools, including recommended programs.
- National Alcohol Strategy
The Australian National Alcohol Strategy 2019–28 provides a framework to prevent and minimise alcohol-related harms among individuals, families and communities.
- Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol
The National Health and Medical Research Council Alcohol Guidelines provide evidence-based advice on the health effects of drinking alcohol.
- Having conversations
The Australian Drug Foundation and Positive Choices have produced resources for talking to young people about alcohol.
- How adults can support young people
The Australian Drug Foundation has produced a resource to support parents in role modelling alcohol consumption.
These parenting guidelines for adolescent alcohol use were produced in collaboration by Orygen Youth Health Research Centre, Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre and the Australian Drug Foundation.
1. Miller, P. G., Butler, E., Richardson, B., Staiger, P. K., Youssef, G. J., Macdonald, J. A. et al. (2016). Relationships between problematic alcohol consumption and delinquent behaviour from adolescence to young adulthood. Drug and Alcohol Review, 35(3), 317–325. doi:10.1111/dar.12345
2. Plenty, S. M., Evans-Whipp, T. J., Chan, G. C. K., Kelly, A. B., Toumbourou, J. W., Patton, G. C. et al. (2019). Predicting alcohol misuse among Australian 19-year-olds from adolescent drinking trajectories. Substance Use and Misuse, 54(2), 247–256. doi:10.1080/10826084.2018.1517172
3. Silins, E., Horwood, L. J., Najman, J. M., Patton, G. C., Toumbourou, J. W., Olsson, C. A. et al. (2018). Adverse adult consequences of different alcohol use patterns in adolescence: An integrative analysis of data to age 30 years from four Australasian cohorts. Addiction, 113(10), 1811–1825. doi:10.1111/add.14263
4. Babor, T. F., Higgins-Biddle, J. C., Saunders, J. B., & Monteiro, M. G. (2001). The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT): Guidelines for use in primary care (Second edition). Geneva: World Health Organization. Retrieved from www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/audit/en/
5. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in Australia. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from www.aihw.gov.au/reports/alcohol/alcohol-tobacco-other-drugs-australia
6. Luciana, M., Bjork, J. M., Nagel, B. J., Barch, D. M., Gonzalez, R., Nixon, S. J. et al. (2018). Adolescent neurocognitive development and impacts of substance use: Overview of the adolescent brain cognitive development (ABCD) baseline neurocognition battery. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 32, 67–79. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2018.02.006
7. Zeigler, D. W., Wang, C. C., Yoast, R. A., Dickinson, B. D., McCaffree, M. A., Robinowitz, C. B. et al. (2005). The neurocognitive effects of alcohol on adolescents and college students. Preventative Medicine, 40(1), 23–32. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2004.04.044
8. Mattick, R., & Smith, J. (Eds.). (2016). Alcohol and young people (Fact sheet). Randwick, NSW: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Retrieved from ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/ndarc/resources/NDA073%20Fact%20Sheet%20Alcohol%20and%20Young%20People_0.pdf
9. Vashishtha, R., Pennay, A., Dietze, P. M., & Livingston, M. (2021). Trends in adolescent alcohol and other risky health- and school-related behaviours and outcomes in Australia. Drug and Alcohol Review. doi:10.1111/dar.13269
10. Quinn, B. (in press). Alcohol use among teens allowed to drink at home (Growing Up in Australia Snapshot Series – Issue 3). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
11. Homel, J., & Warren, D. (2017). Parental influences on adolescents' alcohol use. In Australian Institute of Family Studies (Eds.), Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual Statistical Report 2016 (pp. 61–84). Melbourne: AIFS. Retrieved from growingupinaustralia.gov.au/research-findings/annual-statistical-report-2016/parental-influences-adolescents-alcohol-use