WHO Reports Unexpectedly Good News About Teen Drinking Worldwide

Gen Z is putting boozy adults to shame.

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When teens vape, drink or contemplate snorting condoms, a researcher can never be too far behind. Teens are easy targets for behavioral studies, and data on teen trends is invaluable for explaining why they seem so irresponsible. But a recent report released by the World Health Organization turns that tired teen stereotype on its head. Across Europe, it seems, teens are defying our low expectations — especially when it comes to alcohol.

The report analyzed data from The Health Behaviour in School Aged Children survey, conducted between 2002 and 2014 in 36 European countries, to reveal a massive decline in teenage drinking. On average, weekly drinking for boys and girls was cut in half over those 12 years. Report co-author Jo Inchley, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, tells Inverse that there are two major factors driving this decline: policies that make alcohol harder to get and an overall change in the way that teens view alcohol.

“It seems that it is becoming more socially acceptable for young people not to drink,” she says. “They are more likely to be spending time on other activities, e.g. computers, social media.”

teen drinking
Weekly drinking has decreased across all European subregions since 2002 

Teens appeared to be much less responsible in 2002, when an average of 26.3 percent of 15-year-olds reported drinking on a weekly basis. By 2014, that proportion dropped down to 12.9. This trend persisted even when the data were segregated by gender: In 2002, 20.5 percent of girls reported drinking on a weekly basis, but only 9.4 percent did in 2014. Among boys, that value dropped from 32 percent to 16.4 percent across the same time period.

This paper is simply an analysis of survey data, so the researchers can’t offer an explanation for the changing habits just yet. But they’re starting to think that the root of this change can be traced to the early 2000s — even before the time period covered in the survey.

“Our research shows a decrease across the board in terms of alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis use since the early 2000s,” Inchley says. “It may be that young people are becoming more aware of the health messages around substance use and prioritising health more. But we would need to do some more qualitative work to understand that better.”

Inchley’s assertion is supported by a review published in Drug and Alcohol Review in February suggesting that the decline in drinking may be part of a larger health-related trend that distinguishes this generation of teenagers. In general, they appear to be participating in less “adult” activities from drinking to dating. These authors write:

[Declines] in drinking are consistent with declines in tobacco and cannabis use, sexual risk behaviours and fighting among adolescents. With the exception of dating, which appears to have been decreasing since the early 1990s, most of these behaviours started decreasing noticeably around the early 2000s, consistent with the alcohol trends.

Whether Gen Z is actually shaping up to be the most health-conscious generation, at least from an alcohol perspective, remains to be seen. But these researchers are adamant that these declines aren’t enough to declare victory over teen alcohol abuse, which remains a serious problem.

While these researchers mention that stricter policy regarding underage drinking may be a factor in the decline, it's hard to believe that PSAs like this one had any effect at all. 

In some parts of the world, teen drinking is still as prevalent as always. Take Malta, for example, where weekly alcohol use in 2014 was reported by 28.8 percent of teens. Notably, the declines were more drastic in countries that already had insanely high rates of teen drinking. For instance, 50.3 percent of English boys reported drinking on a weekly basis in 2002, a number that has since dropped to 10 percent. This represents one of biggest changes noted in this report, and it is, at least in part, due to the fact that this rate was so alarmingly high to start with.

On the whole, these results suggest a promising trend that’s changing the behavior of teens in a surprisingly rapid way. Europe, for one, has already hit its goal of reducing drinking by 10 percent by 2025.

Tide pod-eating, aside, it seems like Generation Z has got something right.