Teenagers drink ‘to feel accepted’

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How peer pressure, social media and self esteem affects teenagers’ alcohol consumption is the focus of a talk by University of Otago department of psychology senior lecturer Dr Damian Scarf.

Hosted by the Wanaka Alcohol Group, the talk will take place on September 10 from 7pm at the Lake Wanaka Centre.

The teenage years were a period of rapid brain development, but while there was fast development in areas that process emotions and social interaction, there was slower development in areas that control behaviour, Dr Scarf said.

This meant adolescents had an imbalance between mature processing and impulsive, emotional processing.

Adolescents tended to be driven by ‘‘fitting in with their peers’’.

‘‘They are really looking for acceptance.’’

Teenagers were sensitive to ostracism or being excluded, ‘‘and so they will do things that they might not want to do or that they know are bad, just to fit in’’.
When it came to alcohol, even if an individual teenager did not want to drink or knew they should not drink, just to feel accepted or part of the group they would, he said.

Teenagers could give very adult responses to questions about whether they should drink when they were spoken to alone, but when they were in their social circle, their response could be very different.

‘‘Because they really are driven to be accepted and be included by their peers,’’ Dr Scarf said.

As well as comparing themselves to their peers, they were comparing themselves to people they saw on social media.

‘‘Social media sometimes creates this artificial view of other people’s lives.’’
It showed a positive view without necessarily showing the lows.
‘‘It might show a person partying all the time and not show the repercussions of that.’’

There was a ‘‘grey area’’ between the people whom teenagers actually knew — the ones they went to school with or were friends with, and people they saw online but did not know personally.

‘‘Even people you don’t know personally tend to have quite a strong influence on behaviour.’’

This was having an effect on issues including body image.
‘‘Instagram provides views on bodies and what people should look like and sets up these norms that are kind of unattainable.’’

One change had been that body issues for males was becoming more problematic.
Body issues used to be much more common in females but with many males on Instagram showing unrealistic perceptions of what a body should look like, it was becoming an issue across the board.

Although there had been some drops in the amount of alcohol consumed by teenagers, there were still issues concerning binge drinking and the way teenagers drank.

‘‘We see these gradual declines but binge drinking is still very common in adolescents.’’
Some advice Dr Scarf had parents included limiting access to alcohol.

‘‘We know that sometimes people have this idea that they can introduce their young person to alcohol and have them take a more mature approach.’’
But there was really no data to support that, he said.

‘‘The practical parenting thing is really to not provide alcohol — to limit your young person’s access to alcohol for as long as you can.’’

Lowering exposure to alcohol in the home was important.
Consumption of alcohol at a young age ‘‘knocks off balance normal brain development’’.

But probably the most immediate harm was from injury or doing ‘‘dumb things’’ when you were drunk, including getting into fights or drink-driving, Dr Scarf said.
‘‘That’s probably the most impactful thing that alcohol does.’’