We are constantly being told that we live in a society where drinking is the norm for young people. Media depictions of young people, women in particular, getting wasted in town centres at weekends would have us believe this. But how accurate a picture is this?
When we began recruiting young people who didn’t drink at all or very little for our research we thought we were in for a long haul. How wrong we were! There were more of these young people around than we had imagined and this is indicative of the way false assumptions are shaped by media stereotypes.
Recent survey data explains the ease we found recruiting these young people to our study. Many young people can justifiably complain that the hysteria in the media around drinking is blown out of proportion. Data from the 2010 General Lifestyle Survey suggests that 52 per cent of young men aged 16–24 years hadn’t drunk alcohol in the previous week and that this also applies to 54 per cent of young women aged 16–24. So they’re actually in the majority and far thicker on the ground than we’d thought! Drinking and getting drunk isn’t an automatic rite of passage for young people.
So why would young people choose not to drink alcohol?
Some people just don’t like its taste and let’s face it most of us have to ‘learn’ to like alcoholic drinks. Some have seen its destructive effects on families and other people around them. Some have experienced the bad effects of getting drunk themselves and this has prompted them to think again about drinking alcohol. On the other side of the coin, having parents around who are good role models can be a good influence in teaching young people to drink sensibly.
We may well ask how these young people manage their social lives when drinking is such an integral part of going out and having a good time – or is this yet another misplaced assumption? Young people do enjoy time out without alcohol and for them it’s no big deal – just another one of life’s choices for many of them – though for others it’s more of a statement; an expression of who they are. But surely they must be boring and dull? On the contrary – it’s just that much of the time they’re involved in activities that don’t focus on drinking. When they’re not at work or studying, they enjoy doing ‘the usual things’ like spending time with friends, watching TV, listening to music and so on. Many of them are involved in artwork, writing, sports, and other activities – and they want to be able to do these things without a hangover.
Although some avoid drinking establishments altogether, many happily spend time in bars, pubs and clubs like their drinking friends. So how do young people cope with not drinking when they’re in a bar or pub? Some are up front about their drinking preferences, while others have nailed down a few simple strategies to help them blend in, such as buying their own drinks, drinking mixers so it looks like they have an alcoholic drink or they’ll be driving their drinking friends home.
In a country where diversity is celebrated, let’s have a big cheer for diversity in drinking – not drinking needs to be seen as a legitimate choice if that’s the choice a young person makes. And let’s at least make this an option rather than just assuming everyone is automatically going to drink.