Cathy Arnst

A study just released by the Rand Corp has found that children in the sixth and seventh grade who are exposed to high levels of alcohol advertising were 50% more likely to drink and 36% more likely to intend to drink than children whose exposure to alcohol advertising was very low. How high is high? Well, earlier studies have found that adolescents on average see at least 245 TV ads for alcoholic beverages every year. The Rand study, however, also factored in advertising in magazines, radio and elsewhere, and promotional materials such as tee shirts.

“We did a previous study that found that children as young as fourth grade were very familiar with alcohol advertising and can tell you slogans and brand names. This new study shows that by the time they get to sixth grade, ads may be influencing them to drink,” said Rebecca L. Collins, a RAND senior behavioral scientist and lead author of the study. “Parents often think they don't have to worry about their kids drinking before they get to high school, but sixth grade—or even before—is the time to talk with children about alcohol marketing techniques, as well as drinking,” Collins added.

I recently saw grim first hand proof that sixth grade is not too young for kids to start drinking. I was visiting a very exclusive addiction treatment center for a story, and was told that of the 300 beds, 77 are reserved for adolescents age 12-17. "Twelve!" I gasped. "That's only four years older than my daughter!" A little while later I saw a few of those adolescents walking across the lawn, and some did indeed look 12--and already so addicted that they were in a treatment center. These weren't inner city kids, either. This place is very expensive.

I asked the director how kids can get hooked that young, and he said they are usually self-medicating. That is, they drink or take drugs because of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or hyperactivity. Often they are shy kids who fall in with a few bad seeds where they feel accepted. They start taking anything they can find in the medicine cabinet or kitchen cupboards. Here's what the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has to say about drinking by the very young:

Children who begin to drink at a very early age (before age 12) often share similar personality characteristics that may make them more likely to start drinking. Young people who are disruptive, hyperactive, and aggressive—often referred to as having conduct problems or being antisocial—as well as those who are depressed, withdrawn, or anxious, may be at greatest risk for alcohol problems (20). Other behavior problems associated with alcohol use include rebelliousness (21), difficulty avoiding harm or harmful situations (22), and a host of other traits seen in young people who act out without regard for rules or the feelings of others (i.e., disinhibition) (23–25).

It's important to talk to your kids early and often about the dangers of alcohol. It's probably impossible to isolate them from marketing messages, but you can try and counteract the ads. Even more important, if you have a young child who seems to have emotional issues, such as extreme anxiety, shyness or hyperactivity, seek professional help now. Most schools have therapists or social workers on staff; you can start by making an appointment. Don't assume your child will grow out of it, and don't worry about what friends and family might think. By addressing these problems at age 6, 7 or 8, you may be literally saving your child's life.

For more information about addiction and children, check out the National Institute of Drug Abuse web site, there is lots of information and links. And read some of the statistics on adolescents--pretty scary.

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