Have you ever been in a pub with some of your mates? You somehow managed to get in and get served now you’re sat at a table laughing loudly with bright blue drinks and empty glasses littering your table just like – you think – everybody else. Does a thought ever stray past your mind whispering, “I wonder if they’re all looking at us?”
Yes. Yes they are. And they all think you’re a moron.
In the youth work world there’s a bit of a golden rule when considering how to pitch a program stylistically: Aim 2 years higher. If you’re running a group for 11-14s, pitch it to 14-16s. If you’re running something for 14-16s, pitch it at 16-18s. This is based on the idea that teenagers always want to look a little bit older, a littler bit cooler and a little bit more street wise and if you scratch this itch they will come. When deciding who they want to be, young people look to their immediate elders. This is often the years above them at school, older sisters or brothers, tv show characters, or some weird uber-cool persona that exists only in the teenage zeitgeist; It’s little wonder that every 16 year old wants to drink until they’re off their ass!
Underage drinking is one of the most hideously exploited markets that exists today. It’s sanctioned child abuse. It’s a conscienceless adverting campaign running through culture that goes unchecked and unchallenged by anyone under 60. It hangs off the same rule that we use to pitch a youth work program, namely ‘get em young!’ The sly thing about this is it plugs into viral teenage folklore; ‘your Sixth Form friend told you a story about getting sloshed at the end-of-year after party? Isn’t she cool! Even better, it could be you!’
A few harsh realities about underage drinking culture:
The only ‘of age’ people who drink like you do do so because they started underage.
The only over-18s I know that get wasted in pubs on alcopops or in the streets on cheep cider – who publicly chain drink until they can’t feel their fingers – started doing so before they we’re 18 because ‘they thought it looked cool.’ It wasn’t cool then, and it isn’t cool now.
… Or they do it privately.
And here it’s neither fun, big nor clever! Just very sad, very painful and it quickly drives everything good out of their lives.
Your body genuinely can’t handle it.
When you’re 16-24 you’re body is still going through massive changes. Your liver and other organs are still asserting themselves and they are still learning how to communicate with your brain and nervous system. You may have had three pints and ‘not felt it’ but you can guarantee your body did, and you can guarantee your brain will catch up to… too late.
Alcopops pretend to be sweets not drink.
Every wondered why alcopops exist? It’s to get you! The high visibility colours and ridiculous sugar count are aimed at building on what you’re already addicted to. You’re meant to go, ‘wow this tastes just like fanta, booze is great!’ Which anyone who enjoys a real pint or glass of whiskey will tell you is simply childish – and when you do it in a pub they defiantly think you’re a doofus. Did you know that the average 275ml bottle of alcopop contains 171 calories? That’s around about the same amount as hot chocolate with whipped cream.* It’s the sugar that gets you – not the alcohol!
Alcopops are advertised to teenagers.
I almost wrote ‘subtly’ in the title, but it’s not really. Compare the ad campaigns between say Carling lager (aimed at 20s-30s) and Alcopops like WKD or Bacardi Breezer. The latter are more colorful, community/party driven, new experience based and are highly comparable to playstation, ipod, and x-factor adverts.
New energy drinks are designed to make you feel like you’re drinking.
Have you looked at the shape of the cans, the logos, the adverts, the design ethic? How do they look on the shelves? Who in pop-culture are drinking them and why? What about the colour of the drink itself? Even the taste has a bitter-sweet quality and of course more and more pubs are selling them too. Mixing both the extreme sports world and drinking culture creates a very sly transitional ploy to get teenagers associated with drinking. It may be worth pointing out how incredibly bad for you these drinks are too, and how if mixed with alcohol they can be disastrous!
Alcohol is not a stimulant, its a depressant.
It’s amazing how many people think this is the other way around. Alcohol works by depressing brain function and has been shown to effect long term mental health because of this. While a small amount might temporarily improve your mood, large amounts does exactly the opposite.**
Drinking to get sloshed is neither big nor clever – and no one you respect thinks it is either.
If you hear sensible, fun, of age people talking about going to a party or pub they talk about hanging out with friends, swapping stories, dancing, watching football, meeting new people and generally having a good time. They often have memories and photos of the last time they did it and they mean something to them in their small community. Having some drinks adds to their experience. The only people who talk about getting sloshed do so because they started younger and thought drinking their mates under the table and having to be put into a taxi was what it was all about. Chain drinking and going out ‘in order to drink’ is what people do because they didn’t know better and didn’t have chance to learn properly. This leaves you with an immature approach to friendship and a very shallow small community. The former group have people who go too far to, and there’s no one in those groups who doesn’t roll their eyes when they think of them.
Some rules of thumb for moving into drinking culture:
Don’t believe the lies.
Everyone wants to have a drinking story of going ‘too far.’ Hey, I once got drunk off communion wine during a confirmation service with two bishops in attendance and it does make for a hilarious tale! What you’ll find though is as the story teller gets older they tell less stories about themselves with bravado and more stories about others with pity. They start to realize the truth: getting ratted is not fun and it’s not cool. Don’t believe all the stories people tell you, and don’t hurry into making your own.
Grow community culture, not drinking culture.
What your heart is yearning for is community: Friendship, companionship, place and people. This is why fun people go to parties and pubs, they don’t go out to drink! If you take the ‘to drink’ bit out of the ‘going out’ idea, life becomes so much more fun and fulfilling! Go out to have a good time with people, take lots of pictures, laugh lots, talk lots, remember it and build on it next time.
Give your body time.
Ok lads and lasses, ditch the drinking games and seriously, I don’t know, play cluedo or something! When you start to drink have the odd one, have it with food, intersperse alcoholic drinks with other soft drinks. Give your body and brain time to adapt and learn. Your body and your friends will thank you!
Aim for under your limit, not to your limit.
Your ‘limit’ is how much can you drink before you start to loose senses, not how much can you drink before you can lie on the floor without holding on. Your own limit takes time to work out and it changes throughout you life depending on age, diet, routine, sleep patterns etc. Stay safe and stay a unit below it to give your body and mind wiggle room. Average limits are about 3-4 units for men and 2-3 for women.*** This is obviously lower if you’re still developing. So keep it between 1-3 yeah?
Keep it legal.
The legal drinking age for buying alcohol is 18. Consuming wine, beer, or cider (only) is 16-17 on licensed premises with a meal as long as the person ordering is over 18.**** One of the best ways to learn about your body and limits is to do it safely with parents. Go out for a meal with mum & dad and have a small glass of wine (red with burger, white with pasta!).
The picture with the bottle on your facebook account… no.
It’s become something of a rite-of-passage to get a facebook profile picture with a drink in your hands, the more bottles you can squeeze into your hands and the more deranged look on your face the better. Of course what this actually does is make your friends, teachers, family and potential employers think you’re an idiot too.
A Wee Plea:
Please think harder (or just at all) before buying into the lie ‘drinking lots makes you cool.’ It simply doesn’t, and in the ‘of age’ world where people actually drink – they all think you’re obtuse and frankly a little bit stupid and embarrassing. What you’re experiencing as an underage drinker is not an early step into drinking culture, it’s an entirely different culture aimed to get you addicted early. The only reason it looks like some of drinking culture is because the bleed is going both ways and people who learned to drink early never learned to drink properly.
I’m tired of having to scrape good teenagers up off the streets!
And can someone please kick alcopop and energy drink companies in the teeth?