Past research has found that around two-thirds of US teens will drink alcohol by age 18. New research looks at reasons why kids start drinking in the first place.
A new study found that parents' approval and drinking behaviors were the biggest factors in children taking their first sip of alcohol between the ages of 8 and 12.
The authors of this study were John Donovan, PhD, and Brooke Molina, PhD, both from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
The study included 452 children from Allegheny County, PA, who took part in the Tween to Teen Project — an ongoing study on the risk factors associated with early alcohol use — between March 2001 and June 2002. The kids were all either 8 or 10 years old.
The authors spoke with the children every six months and the parents once a year for an average follow-up time of seven and a half years.
The children were asked whether they had ever tasted or sipped alcohol, in what context and whether they had ever had their own beverage (not just someone else’s).
The authors then asked the children about their parents' views on kids sipping or tasting alcohol, how often their parents talked to them about drinking and whether their parents drank.
The authors asked the parents whether they approved of their children sipping or tasting alcohol, how often they spoke to their children about drinking and how often they drank in the past six months.
The children were asked about how important school was to them, how they felt about "bad" behaviors like shoplifting or fighting, their personal views on drinking, the importance of religion, how they responded to peer pressure and how their friends felt about drinking.
Also, the children were asked how often in the past six months they had participated in "bad" behaviors, attended religious activities, and participated in extracurricular activities and community service.
The study authors found that 94 of the children had sipped or tasted alcohol for the first time between the start of the study and turning 12 years old.
The authors found that the chance of children taking their first sip of alcohol between the first interview and when they turned 12 years old was not associated with “bad” behaviors or other social behaviors involving school, religion or helping other people.
The biggest indicators of sipping or tasting alcohol for the first time between the first interview and age 12 were the children’s perception of their parents' views on drinking, the parents' self-reported approval of children sipping or tasting alcohol, whether the parents currently drank and how the children felt about sipping or tasting alcohol.
"This research suggests that if children do not see their parents as strongly disapproving of child sipping, the children will be more likely to take a first step into alcohol use. More than that, however, it shows that if parents drink in front of their children, their children will be more likely to sip or taste alcohol as a child," Dr. Donovan said in a press release. "I would hope that this research would make parents be a bit more cautious about drinking in front of their children and about the messages they are sending to their children about drinking. They also need to be aware that there is no research that establishes that 'teaching' children to drink or letting them drink in the home protects them from later involvement in binge drinking or alcohol problems."
The authors said more research is needed to fully understand how sipping or tasting alcohol in childhood affects drinking habits during the teenage years.
The participants came from one place in the US, so the findings may not generalizable to people outside that area. Most of the data was self-reported.
This study was published Aug. 26 in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded the research.