The Binge and the Bias

There's a lot to debate about teen drinking -- but you'd never know it from the way the issue is covered by news organizations like '60 Minutes.'
The April 17 edition of 60 Minutes included a piece on parents who allow teens to drink at parties in an attempt to prevent drunk-driving and other alcohol-related problems. It could have been a great opportunity to explore the complex issues and controversies surrounding under-age drinking. But as with almost all of the media coverage of this issue, it was one-sided.

There are two expert views on teen drinking: one that says it cannot be stamped out and that adults should try to "reduce the harm" associated with it; and another, which says that only a "zero tolerance" approach will work. There is data to support both perspectives.

The problem is that, typically, only the latter view gets a hearing-- which was the case in Lesley Stahl's segment. While parents on both sides of the issue were given a chance to say their piece, the only expert interviewed was Jim Mosher, who comes down clearly on the zero-tolerance side. He told Stahl, "We are not doing our children a favor by providing them a quote, 'safe place' to drink."

The slant of the piece was clear from its opening sentence, which claimed that the fact that 10-20 percent of all alcohol is consumed by under-age drinkers is "stunning." While this might shock people living under a rock, with more than 75 percent of Americans taking their first drink before they graduate high school the truly amazing fact is that the statistic is not higher. (In fact, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse got into trouble when it miscalculated the number as 25 percent a few years ago).

The segment didn't include the most relevant study--one recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004, which demonstrates the equivocal nature of the data in this area. It found that teens whose parents held drinking parties for them were twice as likely to binge drink as teens whose parents did not. But it also found that teens who drink with their parents were half as likely to have had a drink in the last month and one-third as likely to binge drink as those who didn't.

Does this mean that parents shouldn't hold parties for their teens, but should teach them to drink moderately? Which teens are at greater risk for drunk-driving deaths--those who binge more, but whose parents hold parties and take away the keys or those who binge less but do so underground with no supervision? Is the stigma associated with criminalizing these parties a factor in why they might be associated with greater binge drinking -- perhaps because the only parents who will hold them in such circumstances are those who have drinking problems themselves, and thus have children at higher risk for such difficulties?

There's a lot to debate here -- but you'd never know it from the way teen drinking is covered by news organizations like 60 Minutes. By reporting that the only way to stop adolescent alcohol use is to "crack down harder," such as by passing laws which criminalize parents who hold drinking parties for teens, is neither an accurate account of the research into alcohol abuse, nor a genuine way to help create better alcohol policies.
Maia Szalavitz is a senior fellow at the media watchdog group STATS.
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