With media promoting drinking as the 'norm', how can parents help their teen develop healthy attitudes towards alcohol, including regarding 'non-drinking' as a valid option?

Last night I was watching the TV news and during a story about the current Test match the cameras suddenly turned their focus onto none-other than our ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. I didn't catch why we had turned our attention away from the game but a moment later we flashed back to the older statesman while he successfully skolled a beer in celebration of our success on the field. The commentators obviously loved it, thoroughly enjoying his drinking skills laughing and saying "He's still got the capability – good on him!" The SMH continued the same line this morning writing "to the delight of the crowd, the 87-year-old pulled out his party trick, downing a frothie with aplomb … Hawke was then shown on the SCG's big screen fulfilling expectations, to the cheers of an adoring crowd." (By the way, the screen is sponsored by Victoria Bitter beer!) News.com had the headline - "Hawke knocks back a frothie" and Sporting News wrote "Bob Hawke necks a beer at the cricket"...

Now I have no problem with anyone, whether it be Bob Hawke, The Queen or Humphrey B Bear, enjoying a drink and even skolling a beer if they wish while they're watching sport, socialising with friends or whatever. It's a legal activity and it's not my business what anyone does in that area as long as it doesn't affect me or anyone else that I care about. That said, did Channel 9 really need to turn a camera onto an 87-year-old man and show him skolling a drink and then actively celebrate it, not once, but over and over again? Not surprisingly, the SMH story took it even further, grabbing the opportunity to let us all know (once again) that our one-time PM once set a world speed drinking record …

"The former PM was re-enacting his feat from the 2012 SCG Test against India ... Without hesitation, the then-82-year-old downed the beer in one go in front of an ecstatic crowd - taking about 11 seconds to finish the drink. That is the same amount of time he is said to have taken to drink 2½ pints of beer when he set a world speed drinking record during his time as a student at University College, Oxford in 1955."

As I said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what our ex-PM did – he looked like he was having a great time and good on him! What I have the issue with is that we don't need to see it. It was a cricket match – show the cricket! So many young people watch the sport – what message are they getting from this sort of coverage? Most of them would have no clue who Hawke was – all they would be picking up from what they were seeing is a very clear message that alcohol and sport go together and that if you can drink it quickly it will be celebrated. Skolling a beer or any form of alcohol is seen, at the very least, as funny (the commentators thought it was hilarious), and, if you're lucky, you may even get a standing ovation for your efforts!

Australia has a unique relationship with alcohol. It plays a major role in many people's lives when it comes to socialising and is not only regarded as 'socially acceptable' but 'socially expected', i.e., if you don't drink, there must be something wrong with you. We drink alcohol to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax, to have fun, in fact, it is central to almost any social gathering or event held in this country. It is interesting, therefore, that even within such a culture, we have a growing number of adolescents choosing not to drink. Not just drinking less (and the numbers there are increasing as well), but actually not drinking at all. Unfortunately, however, alcohol use is perceived as the norm and it is vital that we start to support those who choose not to drink and promote 'non-drinking' as a valid and socially acceptable choice.

It is difficult to be an adult non-drinker in this country, with few, if any, social gatherings or events where the presence of alcohol is not front and centre. Most adults who choose not to drink, for whatever reason, will tell you that they find it incredibly annoying that most people assume that everyone drinks, and if you don't there must be something wrong with you. Constantly explaining and often defending the reasoning behind your decision can get tiresome at best. If adults feel that great social pressure, how difficult must it be for a 15-16-year-old adolescent who is struggling with working out where they fit in the world?

So how can we support our young people when they are constantly bombarded by messages (like the ones that we saw celebrated at the cricket yesterday) that suggest the only way to 'have a good time', particularly in a sporting context or at a special event, is to drink? One simple way is to challenge existing stereotypes around alcohol, with families able to play an important role if they set their mind to it. Unfortunately, many parents believe that they can do little to influence their child’s drinking behaviour. This is not true. Parents can make a real difference and promote positive attitudes around alcohol, including seeing non-drinking as a valid and socially acceptable option, by doing the following:
  • acknowledge all types of drinking – 'risky', 'moderate' and 'non-drinking'. There are basically three options when it comes to alcohol. You can choose to drink to excess, drink responsibly or you can choose not to drink at all. All are valid choices (with varying degrees of risk) and all should be acknowledged. Assuming that every young person will drink alcohol at some point or another is simply not true and can make your child feel something is wrong with them or their choice if that is the path they want to follow
  • if you know a 'non-drinker' – talk about them! If you or your partner doesn't drink alcohol – talk about your decision. Don't jam it down their throat - but if the topic arises, grab the opportunity. If alcohol is a part of your life, a non-drinking relative or family friend can be 'wheeled out’ occasionally to talk about their decisions around drinking with your teens. Your child needs to be aware that adults can have a good time without alcohol and that if they choose not to drink they will not be a 'social outcast'.
  • discuss reasons people choose not to drink – we know most drink to socialize, why do people choose not to? This is an important conversation to have with a child, acknowledging different religious and cultural differences, that some people experience great problems with alcohol possibly due to their family history, while others simply don't like the taste or just aren't interested and that's okay!
  • promote positive norms – 'flip the figures' and talk about how many people don't drink to excess and that the majority of teens are not doing these things, e.g., most 15-year-olds classify themselves as non-drinkers and the number is growing.
  • challenge misconceptions and avoid generalizations – all too often parents make huge statements like "everyone drinks" or "they'll all drink at some time or another". Actually, not everyone drinks, they won't all do it and most teens don't take part in some of the riskier alcohol-related behaviour often reported in the media!
  • be a positive role-model – a child learns so much about alcohol from watching you and your drinking behaviour, not only during their teen years but from the very early years. If you have a brown paper bag with a couple of bottles in it under your arm every time you're out with friends, you are sending a strong message to your kids about the role alcohol plays in socializing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just important that you talk about it.

So what can you so to be a good role-model? Here are some simple things that parents can do that can make a positive impact on your teen's attitudes around alcohol and socializing:
  • talk about your alcohol use – how do you try to drink safely?
  • try to limit your alcohol use in front of your children
  • organise events with families and friends that don't involve alcohol
  • provide food and non-alcoholic beverages if making alcohol available to guests
  • don't portray alcohol as a good way to deal with stress, e.g., "I've had a bad day, I need a drink!"
  • sometimes decline the offer of alcohol

I'm certainly not about promoting abstinence when it comes to alcohol – it's a legal product and, as I've already said, if you want to drink and you're not hurting anyone else, go for it! It's important to acknowledge that we live in a society where alcohol is used widely, with the majority of Australians drinking reasonably responsibly. Most adults actively support, both by their actions and by what they say, those teens who choose not to use illicit drugs, however, the same cannot always be said when it comes to alcohol. If teens choose not to drink alcohol they need to be supported in that choice and the best way to do that is to make it very clear that choosing not to drink is socially acceptable and those who don't drink do not have three heads and are, in fact, completely normal!

I'll say one more time – I am not criticising Bob Hawke for having a drink or even skolling it – that's his business. But when are we going to get to the point when the media realizes that their constant 'promotion' of the link between alcohol and sport (e.g., any Melbourne Cup coverage, or winners of almost any sporting event are shown popping open a champagne bottle) and any special event (I can almost guarantee that any news coverage of Australia Day will involve at least a few cans and bottles and a couple of people looking a bit worse for wear!) is not helpful? Most importantly, they don't need to show alcohol in these stories. It's simply not necessary. There's so much more they could include in a 90-second spot on the news about any sporting event (like the actual sport perhaps?) and do we really need to see a pile of drunk Aussies with tinnies in their hands in a piece highlighting our national day? (The image of a surfer paddling at Bondi balancing a can of VB with an Australian flag in it on his board played over the final credits of the Channel 9 News on Australia Day a couple of years ago still baffles me. There must have been so many other wonderful shots that could have been used - why that one? Is there any other country in the world where their flag is used to promote alcohol to such an extent?)

Challenging the messages our kids are bombarded with around alcohol by the media is not going to be easy. It's not about being a 'wowser' and demonising alcohol and those who choose to drink - it's about redressing the current imbalance and acknowledging that it's okay if you don't.  Parents can make a difference in this area if they put their mind to it. At the very least, it's worth a shot, particularly for those kids who don't want to drink and constantly feel like something is wrong with them because they don't fit in with what they see as the 'social norm'! 


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