By Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed.
The alcohol fueled alleged serial rape of a 16-year-old Ohio girl by two of her similarly impaired classmates - not to mention the drunken videotaped commentary of others - points yet again to the imperative that adult America renews its commitment to address as a true national community those issues that most threaten the health, safety, and forward development of youth.
It is a priority that carries with it, in Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, the fierce urgency of now. Indeed, is there a task more pressing than protecting the generation that will follow us as custodians of the future?
Among the key threats facing our kids are ones often overlooked, underplayed, or enabled by adults: alcohol use and its many negative ramifications, including impaired driving.
Over the past decade, our government has laid out a blueprint for reducing "demand" among adolescents and children, beginning with the National Academy’s report, "Reducing Underage Drinking - A Collective Responsibility." As the title suggests, it is imperative that all members of adult America make it their business to join the legions of agencies, organizations, schools, and families in combating underage drinking and the driving that often follows.
But new research reveals we have a long way to go.
According to a recently released study of teens by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds reporting that their parents allow them to drink at home, host alcohol-included parties, and drink at parties away from home is on the rise.
For example, 37 percent of the teens revealed that their parents allow them to drink with them, up 10 percent from 2010.
Some believe that "de-mystifying" alcohol use by allowing kids to drink at home will make it less likely their teens will drink elsewhere. But other research tells a different story. According to a 2005 SADD Teens Today study:
Among high school teens, those who tend to avoid alcohol are more than twice as likely as those who repeatedly use alcohol to say their parents never let them drink at home (84 percent vs. 40 percent).
More than half (57 percent) of high school teens who report their parents allow them to drink at home, even once in a while, say they drink with their friends, as compared to just 14 percent of teens who say their parents don’t let them drink at home.
Similarly, between 2010 and this year, those stating that they are allowed to drink without their parents present or to attend alcohol-included parties rose from 21 to 29 percent and from 36 to 47 percent, respectively.
Finally, those teens reporting that they are permitted to host parties with alcohol increased slightly over prior years to 15 percent.
Given the known - and deleterious - effects of alcohol on evolving teen brains and the link between early alcohol use and life-long problems, this trend represents a significant concern to prevention specialists and educators.
Maybe even more alarming is the percentage of teens that admit to driving after drinking (15 percent) or using marijuana (16 percent).
Hence the urgency.
Fortunately, not all the news is bad. A combination of policy, parents, and peers holds some hope.
Policy: An increasing number of states are enacting - and enforcing - social host liability laws, holding adults accountable if they provide alcohol to minors or allow alcohol-included parties to take place in their homes.
Parents: Mom and Dad remain the most powerful force in their teen’s decision-making. Conversations about safe driving and saying no to alcohol can start with them.
Peers: Friends hold a lot of power, too. Eighty-seven percent of surveyed teens will ask a peer under the influence of alcohol to refrain from driving ... and 92 percent of those peers would agree.
And other help is on the way. A new media campaign from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Talk. They Hear You, highlights the power and responsibility of parents when it comes to youth alcohol use.
Thus, let’s make a resolution in our courts, our homes, and our cars to address the scourge of youth substance use and the crash deaths and injuries from car crashes that often result.
That is the fierce urgency of now.
Stephen Gray Wallace is the senior policy advisor at SADD.