Teenagers commonly have different expectancies about alcohol’s positive and negative effects before and after taking their first drink, according to the results of a study published in early 2015 in the journal Addiction.
Alcohol expectancies are known to play an important role in determining whether teenage alcohol consumers initiate patterns of drinking that significantly increase their chances of developing diagnosable alcohol problems. In the study published in Addiction, a team of American researchers compared the drinking expectancies commonly held by adolescents before and after their first introduction to alcohol use. The researchers concluded that expectations vary considerably before and after first use, as do the underlying explanations for holding particular beliefs about the effects of alcohol.
Teenagers And Initial Alcohol Use
On any given day of the year, roughly 4,000-plus American children age 15 or younger consume a full serving of alcohol for the first time, the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health reports. When preteens and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 are taken into consideration, the first drink most typically occurs at age 13. Among people in the broader age range of 12 to 20, the first drink most typically occurs at age 16. Figures compiled for the year 2014 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that 46.4 percent of all American eighth, 10th and 12th graders have tried alcohol. In addition, 29.2 percent of the nation’s eighth, 10th and 12th graders have consumed enough alcohol to get drunk. Both of these figures reflect a long-standing downward trend in drinking among America’s teenagers.
Teens And Alcohol Problems
U.S. teenagers have an unfortunate tendency to consume alcohol while participating in an activity called binge drinking, which is defined by the intake of enough alcohol to rapidly reach or go beyond the threshold for legal intoxication. Binge drinking creates a range of serious or severe short-term risks for participants of any age. In addition, individuals who binge drink with regularity may experience a substantial increase in their long-term chances of receiving a diagnosis for alcohol use disorder (defined by separate or overlapping symptoms of non-addicted alcohol abuse or alcoholism).
Alcohol expectancies come in “positive” and “negative” forms. Commonly held positive expectations about drinking include the belief that alcohol makes social interactions easier, the belief that alcohol makes it easier to relax and the belief that alcohol makes it easier to feel confident and self-assertive. Negative expectations about drinking include the belief that alcohol use produces unpleasant side effects, the belief that alcohol use has a damaging social cost and the belief that alcohol use can meaningfully degrade short- and long-term physical and/or mental health. Generally speaking, teenagers who hold positive alcohol expectancies drink more often, drink in larger amounts and have a higher level of exposure to alcohol use disorder and other forms of drinking-related risk. Some alcohol expectancies have their roots in life experiences, while others have their roots in inborn genetic tendencies.
Impact Of The First Drink And The Influence Of Genetics
In the study published in Addiction, researchers from the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania and Kaiser Permanente Northern California used a project involving 1,292 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18 to explore the impact that the first experience with drinking has on a teenager’s expectations about alcohol’s effects.
All of the study participants were twins; researchers commonly use twin-based projects when they want to investigate the genetic aspects of a scientific question. The researchers asked each individual to report the age at which he or she first consumed a full serving of alcohol (if such an event had in fact occurred). They used a screening tool called the Alcohol Expectancy Questionnaire for Adolescents to record each participant’s alcohol-related expectations before and after that first drink.
After analyzing their data, the researchers concluded that teenagers have substantially more expectations about the effects of alcohol after they take their first drink. They also concluded that, before consuming alcohol for the first time, teens typically base their expectations on environmental influences (including the drinking attitudes and behaviors of parents and peers). However, after initial alcohol use, underlying genetic influences begin to exert a stronger influence on the expectations that adolescents hold toward drinking. This finding suggests that genetic predisposition plays a substantial role in determining whether any given teen will embark on a risky pattern of alcohol use capable of triggering alcohol use disorder or other serious problems.