Young people are inundated with messages about alcohol. Research says that annually young people are exposed to over 1,000 advertisements for alcohol, not including references to alcohol in the songs they are listening to, or alcohol-related content in the shows they are watching. One message about alcohol that is coming through loud and clear to young people is that alcohol is a helpful coping mechanism. In fact, at Candor, when we survey our students about the reasons someone starts using alcohol, their number one response is stress.
It is clear that young people are associating alcohol with being a stress-reliever and there is little wonder why. This message is regularly sent through television, movies, music where storylines involve references to using alcohol to get through a tough time. Perhaps less obvious, but also highly impactful is the messaging sent through merchandise with messages that while intended to be funny, simply reinforce the use of alcohol to cope with a bad day. How many of us have seen glasses, magnets, and home décor with messages like “liquid therapy” (with a picture of a wine glass), “stay calm and pour on,” and “wine a little and you’ll feel better”? A quick survey of my own home found a small plaque that reads “this home runs on love, laughter and really good wine,” which made me think about what message this is sending my two young boys.
Rarely, if at all, are young people seeing the potential short and long-term consequences of alcohol use in the media around them. While initially someone who self-soothes with alcohol may feel more relaxed, study after study has found that alcohol can, over time, make anxiety and depression worse. Media simply does not depict these negative consequences of use.
It is always a good time for parents and other trusted adults to consider the messaging that we are sending to the young people in our lives. We need to consider what we can do to support the young people we care about in making healthy decisions around alcohol use.
First and foremost, as trusted adults it is important to communicate early and often. Regular conversations are critical to combatting media’s messaging around alcohol (and other substances). Start these conversations by age 12 or earlier and before young people are in situations where they must make decisions about using alcohol. One conversation is never enough. Short on-going conversations are most effective.
What to talk about with young people?
- Assess what they already know about alcohol by asking open-ended questions.
- Explore the messages that they get from society about alcohol. Help them build their media literacy skills, including considering the motives behind the messaging.
- Explain how alcohol impacts the developing brain differently than the adult brain and why that is.
- Plan for peer pressure situations. Consider developing a code that can be communicated when help is needed.
- Set clear expectations and rules around alcohol use.
- Guide young people to healthy peer activities. Things that give them a “natural high.”
- Acknowledge and talk about instances of use. Affirm the courage it takes for them to talk to you about it.
By having these conversations and setting clear rules about alcohol use, we can increase the protective factors that positively support young people.
Written by Katie Gallagher-Director of Education