The question of whether adults should be allowed to drink alcohol at school discos, fetes and sports games was thrust into the spotlight this week after the Australian Drug Foundation urged education departments to develop “alcohol management strategies” to ban drinking at school events.
Parents who drink at these events may consider there is a social benefit to doing so. But what does this behaviour mean for children and young people who might be watching and learning from the example set by their parents and teachers?
First, let’s consider some facts about Australians and alcohol:
Australia has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world, according to the WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol.
Alcohol is linked to the three leading causes of death among young people: unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide.
Alcohol is a precursor to other health and lifestyle problems that impact on young people’s future: unsafe sex, sexual assault, violence, injury, behavioural problems, academic failure, mental health problems and social problems.
More than one in three young Australians were victims of alcohol-related harm in the past year.
We should be asking why our young people are at such a high level of risk from alcohol-related harm. And we should be looking at what we can do as a community to reduce young peoples' exposure to alcohol-related risks and harms, particularly as some of these continue into adulthood.
Reducing the social acceptance of alcohol in Australia is one area we can target to lower rates of consumption and the related harms. And we know that the way adults model alcohol use has a significant influence on the drinking patterns of young people.
In fact, the way parents drink and model alcohol use – along with the rules and regulations they have about their child’s alcohol use and how they monitor this – have the most significant impact on young people’s initiation to, and patterns of, alcohol use.
It’s important for parents and teachers to show young people that adults can enjoy themselves without alcohol, particularly at school events where the focus should be on the students.
Further, alcohol use at schools inappropriately links alcohol and education, and encourages the adults involved to drink and drive. These actions are being watched and noted by the students and their siblings.
School-based alcohol education
Teachers and schools have an important role to play in reducing alcohol use and related harm by providing appropriate and effective alcohol education.
Locally-developed programs offered in some schools have had a positive effect on the way young people think about and use alcohol. An evaluation of the NDRI-developed School Health and Alcohol Harm Reduction Project (SHAHRP), for example, found students consumed 20% less alcohol, were 19.5% less likely to drink to risky levels and experienced 33% less harm associated with their own use of alcohol, than the control group who received regular alcohol education.
The SHAHRP lessons are conducted in two phases with eight lessons in the first year of secondary school (at 13 years) and five booster lessons in the following year during phase two of the program (14 years).
Phase one is targeted immediately prior to students’ initial experiences with drinking, giving them alcohol harm-reduction skills and strategies immediately before they begin drinking alcohol.
Phase two reinforces knowledge and skills during a time when most young people are experimenting with alcohol, ensuring that information is immediately relevant. This period of experimentation often exposes teenagers to a higher level of risk, due to the type of drinking generally undertaken (binging) and their relative inexperience in handling the changes brought about by alcohol use in themselves and in others.
The SHAHRP lessons support students to develop an awareness of situations with alcohol-related risk, and skills training to enable them to make and implement choices that minimise harms when they’re around alcohol.
The SHAHRP board game activity (right), for instance, encourages students to stay safe in pseudo alcohol-use situations by developing and sharing strategies to reduce or eliminate harm.
The scenarios in the game, and other SHAHRP activities, were originally identified through focus groups with young people to ensure they were realistic and relevant to students.
The SHAHRP program findings have been replicated internationally and demonstrate the ability for evidence-based interactive programs to change young people’s alcohol use behaviours.
If schools want to provide appropriate messages about alcohol to young people that are going to have a practical benefit for students, they need to provide evidence-based programs that can reduce alcohol use and minimise the harm that young people experience in alcohol-use situations.
Schools also need to set a clear example that alcohol isn’t needed for parents and teachers to enjoy themselves at school functions.
The National Drug Research Institute’s SHAHRP resources are are available online under a creative commons license.