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What are the social situations in which underage drinking is most likely to occur?

Drinking alcohol for people under 21 is illegal, but many adolescents still drink and too often suffer negative consequences from drinking.  A recent study by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation took a detailed look at when, where, and in what social situations adolescents drink. The results of this study can improve our understanding of underage drinking and how to prevent it and reduce the risks that go along with it.

The researchers used a novel data collection tool called ecological momentary assessment.  They sent brief surveys via smartphones to 149 California youth, aged 13-18.  The surveys were sent over the course of two weekends in early and late evenings and the following morning.  Adolescents were asked where they were, whether they were drinking, and a few questions to characterize the social situations they were in ( whether it was a party, number of people).  In this way, the researchers were able to get information while the young people were still in the situation or shortly thereafter.

Of the 1249 assessments included in this study, most events (87%) did not include alcohol use, 6% included alcohol use at parties and 7% included alcohol use not at a party. Alcohol use at parties occurred at homes half of the time whereas non-party alcohol use occurred at home more than 75% of the time.  The mean number of people at party events was about 50 whereas drinking occasions other than at parties averaged about seven people.  Immediate family members were present at 4% of parties compared to 20% of the non-party alcohol use occasions.  Almost three quarters of the events where no alcohol was used had adult supervision compared with both party (31%) and non-party alcohol use events (44%).  These findings show that adult supervision can be very important in preventing underage alcohol use.  But it also indicates that a surprisingly high proportion of occasions when underage people drink, adults are present.

The findings showed that when young people were at parties, they were more likely to drink alcohol if there were more people at the party and if there were both males and females.  When they were in situations other than at parties, they were more likely to drink if they were with friends.  The researchers think that the influence of close friends is more powerful in small groups.  When adolescents are with large groups, more general peer influence may take place.  Young people who thought that they were likely to get caught by parents or police were less likely to drink – especially in the non-party situations.

The researchers concluded that parties with large numbers of people are especially risky for underage drinking.  These results indicate the importance of educating parents about their teens' access to alcohol in the home and possible measures, including social host laws, to prevent underage drinking and related problems.

Study author Sharon Lipperman-Kreda said, “This study gives us a more detailed understanding of underage drinking, especially underage drinking parties, which are high risk settings for heavier drinking and other alcohol-related problems. The findings can help law enforcement, communities, and parents develop strategies to prevent underage drinking and risky behavior.”

Source:  Social and situational characteristics associated with adolescents' drinking at party and non-party events, Sharon Lipperman-Kreda, Laura J. Finan, Joel W. Grube, Addictive Behaviors, Volume 83, August 2018, Pages 148-153.