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Serving teens alcohol is harmful to cognition, development

Last week, I found myself performing the very tedious task of reattaching an ear on a ceramic bunny. My cat has an issue with the little figure standing upright, so she takes great pleasure in knocking it on its side. I have no idea why, and usually, I just place the lopsided bunny back on its feet and walk away. But this time, the figurine had fallen to the floor, and the tip of one ear broke off.

I stood in the kitchen having placed a small dot of glue on the fractured part and held it steadily in place, so the glue could dry. But standing patiently and waiting is not my forte. The instructions on the bottle of glue clearly said to apply gentle pressure for three minutes. To me, that is a small eternity.

I decided this was overkill. The glue was one of those supercharged formulas, and the bunny is pretty small. I decided to let go. I gently took my finger off the bunny’s ear, and it flew across the room, bouncing its way along the floor. I had learned my lesson. I repeated the steps, this time being sure not to interfere with the bonding process for the full three minutes. The manufacturer of the glue knows what he or she is talking about.

Later that day, I used this analogy when a conversation came up about teens and alcohol. One person proposed we ought to think like European countries and introduce kids to alcohol when they are young so they learn to respect it and drink responsibly. The problem with this idea is that kids’ brains simply aren’t ready. They are under construction until their early 20s. Introducing alcohol before that development is complete interferes with the growth process, much like taking the pressure off a recently glued object as the substance hardens. As the last part of the brain that develops is the part responsible for good judgment and critical thinking, the likelihood of successfully teaching responsible drinking to a teen is slim.

The drinking age in most European countries is around 18, sometimes earlier for beer and wine. And while alcohol consumption is often introduced as part of family mealtime, ritual or culture itself, the research on alcohol use among teens yields some pretty interesting results. One study showed the United States has equal or lower rates of 15- and 16-year-olds reporting having been intoxicated in the past 30 days compared to our European counterparts. We also show lower rates of past 30-day use of alcohol (an indicator of more regular use) among teenagers. U.S. data also shows equal or lower rates than most European countries when it comes to youth reporting having been intoxicated before the age of 13. The earlier one begins regular use of alcohol, the greater the chances of a lifetime addiction. It appears our policies around banning alcohol use until the age of 21 not only make sense, they make a difference. Now we need to work on the mindset.

On the 2015 PA Youth Survey (PAYS), youth who indicated having used alcohol in the past year were asked where they got it. In Lehigh County, 31 percent said they got alcohol from their parents, while 21 percent said they took it from their homes. Serving alcohol to youth or allowing them access to alcohol does not help mold them into responsible adults. There is no evidence that a “controlled burn” of drinking at home reduces college binge drinking. Just as my bunny figure was not “ready” for me to release the support I was providing while its ear mended, teens are not yet ready for parents to let go of rules and expectations about drinking. Physiologically, their bodies simply are not ready for the chemical changes caused by alcohol.

All the research confirms serving alcohol to teens is dangerous. It is harmful to cognition and development and can lead to harder drug use - and it is illegal. Let’s heed the directions on caring for the developing brain and not serve alcohol to teens.

Editor’s note: Denise Continenza is the family and consumer sciences educator with Penn State Extension, Lehigh and Northampton counties.