Predicting Tomorrow's Teen Binge Drinkers?

Predicting Tomorrow's Teen Binge Drinkers?

Why you should care

Binge drinking among college-age kids is a huge problem. Recognizing the very early signs could help steer kids in a better direction. 

The nerves, the too-confident swagger, the sweaty palms — at 14, they’re still kids, and yet almost adults. In just a few years, they’ll go from chiding younger siblings to hitting their first frat party. Who will become a drinker, and who will hit the books? Who will stagger home, and who will be the designated driver?

A new study claims to be able to predict which 14-year-olds will become binge drinkers at age 19 with 70 percent accuracy.

Hugh Garavan, a University of Vermont associate professor of psychiatry; Robert Whelan, a lecturer at University College Dublin; and colleagues assessed 2,400 14-year-olds in eight European cities. They predicted how many would take up the tipple by 16, and continued following them through their current age (19) to see if the predictions proved correct and held true.

Garavan stresses that it’s not one thing that spurs a kid to do his best Animal House impersonation, but several. Some of the red flags are pretty easy to spot. Others, not so much.

About half of all college students who imbibe are binge drinkers, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Kids who drink tend to drink more than adults — five drinks, on average, which is the definition of a binge, the institute notes. The odds of bingeing their way to full-blown alcoholism remains statistically pretty low. But drinking like that has been linked to car accidents, sexual assaults, suicide and all kinds of very poor lifestyle decisions. Heading off that kind of behavior could be a boon to everyone.

The risk factors:

  • Larger brains — because our gray matter shrinks as we age, so a larger brain signifies a more immature head space
  • Suffering several stressful life events
  • Family history of drug use
  • Engaging in impulsive risk-taking
  • Having their first drink by age 14

Ways of reducing binge drinking among teens are well-documented, from the involvement of loving family members to talking to kids early (maybe earlier than many parents feel comfortable with) about the potential dangers of alcohol. If kids know the risk factors in greater detail, that may help boost the odds that parents, teachers and other caregivers can successfully head off bigger issues down the road — in college or beyond.

The researchers aren’t done. One of their next projects? Seeing if they can make the same kind of accurate predictions about pot use.

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