A recent study released by Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among a sample of national TV programs in the 25 largest U.S. television markets, almost 1 in 4 alcohol advertisements violated the alcohol industry's voluntary standards. Thankfully, my girls don't watch very much television, and what they do watch is limited to Disney, Sprout and Nickelodeon. You don't see any alcohol ads on those channels. There's a surplus of Pillow Pet and Rainbow Loom commercials, and you see the influence that has on children: Every kid I know has a Rainbow Loom. So imagine what will happen in 7 to 10 years, when your teenager is watching ABC and is inundated by Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita ads.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Thomas Wright, M.D., an addictionologist and the chief medical officer and senior vice president of medical affairs at Rosecrance, one of the country's leading teen substance-use treatment facilities.
"We know that advertising is correlated with use," says Dr. Wright. "The more exposure, the more use. Parents and schools need to do their best to reduce exposure."
Research findings on the subject are particularly alarming. They show that exposure to alcohol marketing increases the chance that underage viewers will begin drinking. Underage drinking runs a high risk of impairing neurological development.
"Teen years are very important years in terms of the growth and maturation of the nervous system," says Dr. Wright. "The brain is busy building and reinforcing important connections and pathways that will be in place the rest of a teen's life. These pathways and circuits can be severely disrupted by the introduction of alcohol or drugs. In addition, the brain may develop patterns and pathways that may reinforce the use of drugs or alcohol the rest of a teen's life."
Alcohol consumption also increases the likelihood that teens will be in car crashes, be violent, contract sexually transmitted diseases and unintentionally become pregnant. That's a mighty high price to pay just to watch prime-time television.
"Alcohol is generally classified as a sedative type of drug," says Dr. Wright. "People lose their inhibitions and become more sedated the more they drink. People can drink enough to black out. At times like this, young people risk being vulnerable to whatever else is going on around them. Depending on where they are or who they are with, they might be quite safe or be a subject of abuse or trauma. We know that a majority of teenage women who have used drugs or alcohol have been victims of abuse. If this is sexual abuse or even consensual sex, teens are not often thinking correctly and may risk becoming pregnant."
But how do we know if our children are abusing alcohol? I've never had a teen before, so how would I know what to look for? The biggest problem we've had thus far has been related to their overindulging in chocolate milk.
"Warning signs for drinking are worsening grades, changing friends, keeping odd hours, secretiveness, withdrawal and moodiness," says Dr. Wright. He also says that you may notice that liquor is missing and that you may smell tobacco on your teens. If you see any warning signs, Dr. Wright says there are texts available to help you learn more about potential risky behavior.
If you suspect that your teen is drinking alcohol, you should confront him. But in order for that to work, you need to already have a relationship that includes open dialogue. The best plan of action is prevention and preparation. Start working on your relationship with your children now so that if the time ever comes, you can have a productive conversation about the issue of alcohol rather than provoking defensive anger and explosions. If the latter happens, your teen will shut down and shut you out. You can't be helpful from the outside looking in.
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