The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Broken Homes, Boozing Teens

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

In both the United States and Europe, public-health officials worry about the abuse of alcohol among adolescents. Those who read a new study of the problem in Europe may suspect that such abuse is all too often a pathetic self-medication by teens desperate to alleviate the pains of family disintegration.  

The authors of this new study of adolescent alcohol use come from a wide range of institutions, including Columbia University in the United States, the Université de Lorraine in France, the University of Oviedo in Spain, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and Tel Aviv University in Israel. Together this international team of scholars confront the problem of adolescent consumption of alcohol, a problem they characterize as “among the core risk behaviours among adolescents.” Underage drinking is particularly worrisome because it “makes adolescents vulnerable to the occurrence of maladaptive behaviour, delinquency, violence, accidents, emotional instability, depression, social exclusion and suicide.” And because it is “deleterious to adolescent mental health and safety,” underage drinking creates “a substantial economic burden to governments.”

To identify those social contexts that conduce to adolescent use of alcohol, the researchers parse data on risk behaviors among adolescents in Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, and Spain. These data indicate that family structure powerfully affects adolescents’ vulnerability to the temptation of alcohol use. “Living in a family with both birth parents,” conclude the researchers, “is a protective factor against alcohol consumption in adolescence—adolescents from single-parent families and step-parent families tend to drink more than adolescents from both-parent families.”

The protective effect of an intact family shows up whether the researchers are looking at the frequency with which adolescents drink alcohol, the amount they drink, or the frequency with which they become drunk.

Statistical analysis establishes that “in single-parent families (O[dds] R[atio] = 1.481) and step-parent families (O[dds]R[atio] = 1.745) the odds of higher adolescent drinking frequency were statistically significantly (p < 0.001) greater, compared to both-parent families.” Such analysis likewise shows that “adolescents’ odds to have higher drinking quantities increased in single-parent families (O[dds]R[atio] = 1.428) and in step-parent families (O[dds]R[atio] = 1.823), statistically significantly (p < 0.001) compared to both-parent families.”

Predictably, the numbers also reveal that adolescents living in single-parent families and in step-families become drunk significantly more often than do peers living in intact two-parent families (p < 0.001 for both comparisons). 

Clearly, a striking gap in drinking behavior separates adolescents in intact families from peers in both single-parent and step-families. In contrast, the researchers find “no statistically significant differences between single-parent families and step-parent families regarding adolescents’ drinking patterns.”

The scholars who conducted this study interpret their own findings in the context of previous research in which “adolescents from single-parent families have been shown to be at risk of psychiatric disorders and substance abuse.”

Given the trends in family life on both sides of the Atlantic, those who run alcohol rehabilitation centers—in Paris and Philadelphia, Seattle and Stockholm—can expect to be amply employed in the decades ahead.    

(Erik Rüütel et al., “Alcohol Consumption Patterns among Adolescents Are Related to Family Structure and Exposure to Drunkenness within the Family: Results from the SEYLE Project,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 11.12 [2014]: 12700-12715.)