Navigating the teen years is a challenge for many parents. As children approach adulthood, one of the many questions parents might consider is: how can I positively shape the way my kids think about and behave toward alcohol? Fortunately, there is a wealth of research that can help parents make informed decisions on this matter.
Underage drinking is actually less common than parents might think. Over the past 20 years, alcohol use among young people has declined in many countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe. Among 14-17 year-olds in Australia, roughly 2 in 3 have never had a standard drink of alcohol.
While abstinence is the norm, more work needs to be done – to help young people to keep saying ‘no’ to alcohol, and encourage the minority of under-18s who do drink to change their behaviour.
The parental supply of alcohol to underage children is harmful
Fortunately, most Australian parents already don’t give alcohol to their underage teens. However, for the minority of teens who drink while underage, a large proportion get their alcohol from their parents.
Parents who give their underage teens alcohol may be well-intentioned, but research shows it’s more likely to do harm than good—even when accounting for factors such as parental alcohol consumption, familial alcohol problems, and peer substance use. By giving them alcohol, parents place underage teens who are not already receiving alcohol from other sources at greater risk of engaging in binge drinking, experiencing alcohol related harms, and receiving alcohol from friends or siblings in the following year.
Discouraging parents from giving alcohol to their underage teens could therefore act as a lever that continues to drive down underage drinking rates.
Discouraging parental supply using social norms messaging
To pull this lever, we worked with DrinkWise to design evidence-based messages that will feed into an upcoming campaign. DrinkWise has a history of developing successful campaigns that encourage Australian parents to actively and positively shape how their children think about and behave toward alcohol.
Because underage drinking and the parental supply of alcohol to underage children are uncommon behaviours, they are good candidates for a social norms messaging approach. Social norms messages are statements about what most people in a relevant group (eg teenagers, parents) do or approve of in relation to a behaviour (eg underage drinking, parental supply). When the actions or opinions of most people in the group are desirable, communicating these social norms can help to correct misperceptions about what is ‘normal’, and influence others similar to them to also do the behaviour.
In partnership with DrinkWise, we designed, user tested, and refined two social norms messages aimed at parents. Drawing on published Australian statistics, one message highlighted the low prevalence of underage drinking (Teen Norms message), and the other highlighted the low prevalence of parental supply (Parent Norms message). Each message also contained a call to action (‘Help your teens make the smart choice by not giving them alcohol’ or ‘Support your kids by not giving them alcohol’) that advised parents what they should do, in a concrete and non-judgemental way.
We tested these messages in an online randomised trial with 1,091 Australian parents of 8-17 year-olds, where roughly half the parents in the trial were shown the Teen Norms message, and the other half were shown the Parent Norms message.
Parents in both groups reported that they would be unlikely to give alcohol to their underage children after viewing their assigned message. The Parent Norms message was especially effective. Parents who saw this message were more likely to say that they would not supply alcohol to their underage children, compared to parents who saw the Teen Norms message. This difference was statistically significant. (We controlled for: gender, age, number of sons, number of daughters, regionality [metropolitan/regional], household income, and parental supply status [never/sips/whole drinks)
Regardless of which message they saw, parents told us that they agreed with the message and felt capable of implementing the call to action.
Overall, the trial demonstrated that both messages were well received by parents, though the Parent Norms message was especially effective. The results of this trial fed into DrinkWise’s campaign to discourage Australian parents from giving alcohol to their underage teens, which launched in November 2022. Read more about the campaign here.