How Do Alcohol Expectancies Shape Teen Drinking Behaviors?

How Do Alcohol Expectancies Shape Teen Drinking Behaviors?

January 10th, 2015 Alcohol Addiction, Helpful Articles

Alcohol expectancies are the things that people consciously and unconsciously expect to happen when they consume alcohol. Broadly speaking, any given person can have a positive or negative expectation of the consequences of alcohol intake. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from three American universities examined the ways in which alcohol expectancies in early childhood affect the average teenager’s chances of consuming any amount of alcohol and chances of consuming alcohol in ways likely to lead to serious drinking problems.

Teenagers and Alcohol

The majority of American teenagers do not drink alcohol in the average month, according to figures compiled for 2013 through Monitoring the Future, a federally funded survey project that monitors substance use trends among U.S. 12th, 10th and eighth graders. However, alcohol use is still relatively common, especially among older teens. Roughly 39 percent of 12th graders consume at least one alcoholic drink per month. The rate of monthly use drops to 25.7 percent among 10th graders and reaches a low of 10.2 percent among eighth graders. About one-quarter (26 percent) of American 12th graders drink enough alcohol to get drunk at least once in the average month. The monthly drunkenness rate falls to 12.8 percent among 10th graders and reaches a low of 3.5 percent among eighth graders. Monthly alcohol intake rates for 12th, 10th and eighth grade fell between 2012 and 2013. In addition, monthly drunkenness rates also fell in all three grades between 2012 and 2013. While most of the decreases were minor, some were substantial enough to reach the level of statistical significance.

Teenagers who first touch alcohol before reaching the age of 15 have sharply increased chances of someday developing alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse/alcoholism), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note. Additional known adverse consequences of teen alcohol use include declining school performance, social adjustment difficulties, exposure to serious or fatal alcohol-related accidents, exposure to sexual assault, exposure to physical assault and increased risks for intentional death.

Alcohol Expectancies

In a culture where alcohol use is common, most people (including children) have consciously or unconsciously maintained attitudes about the pluses and minuses of drinking. People who view alcohol consumption as a beneficial activity typically hold “positive” expectancies about drinking’s effects, while people who view alcohol consumption as a harmful activity typically hold “negative” expectancies about drinking’s effects. Specific reasons for holding positive or negative opinions on the impact of alcohol use vary from person to person. Common positive expectancies include such things as mood elevation, increased social ease and reduced social inhibition. Common negative expectancies include such things as exposure to hangovers and other physical side effects, as well as exposure to damaging personal, social or legal alcohol-related outcomes.

Impact on Teen Drinking Behaviors

In the study published in Addiction, researchers from the University of Michigan, Idaho State University and Michigan State University used long-term information gathered from a group of 614 children to assess the impact that alcohol expectancies in early childhood have on typical teen drinking behaviors. The project began when these children were six years old and continued until they reached the age of 17. Four times during this extended span of time, the researchers conducted tests designed to uncover the participants’ attitudes on alcohol use, as well as the amount of alcohol the participants consumed at early and late stages of adolescence. Four hundred sixty of the study participants had at least one parent who qualified for an alcoholism diagnosis.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that there is a two-way connection between younger children’s positive alcohol expectancies and alcohol consumption during adolescence. Specifically, younger children who think that alcohol is relaxing and improves social interactions have heightened chances of getting drunk for the first time at an early age and participating in the dangerous, drunkenness-producing pattern of consumption called binge drinking at an early age. Conversely, teenagers who start drinking tend to develop a heightened belief in alcohol’s benefits for relaxation and social interaction. Once an alcohol-consuming teen develops these beliefs, they typically persist over time.

Overall, the study’s authors concluded, children who view alcohol use in a positive light are substantially more likely to develop significant alcohol-related problems at an early age. Unfortunately, active teen alcohol use can reinforce positive expectations and contribute to future alcohol-related risks.

By: Gideon Hoyle

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