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Young. Eager. And Drunk.

A 12-year-old binger? Believe it. Alcohol abuse starts early.

WebMD Feature

May 15, 2000 -- What should a grade-school girl do if Uncle Joe shows up at school to drive her home and he's reeking of alcohol? What should a sixth-grader do when his schoolmates open up a six-pack and offer him a beer?

For parents who think young children are protected from such decisions, it may be time to think again. Although an alarming increase in college binge drinking has been in the spotlight recently, the evidence from government and private research shows that problems with alcohol begin much earlier than college.

A 1999 national survey from the University of Michigan shows that 51% of high school seniors, 40% of 10th graders, and 24% of 8th graders had used alcohol in the past month. One-third of high school seniors admitted to bingeing in the past month, as did more than a quarter of 10th graders and 15% of 8th graders surveyed. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks at one sitting for females and five or more for males.

Spotting the Problem

Counselor Lori Huggins has seen the problem firsthand. She directs YouthLink at the nonprofit Oregon Partnership, where programs include a teen-to-teen hotline, an up-to-date list of resources, tips for parents, and a newly launched junior high program.

Huggins' grassroots view of alcohol use comes from many hours spent in high school classes and in teen-parent meetings. Several times a week she poses this question to a class full of high school students: "Nationally, students supposedly have their first drink between 12 and 14. Do you think that's accurate?" Every time at least three-quarters of the hands go up to agree, she says.

From high school students, Huggins has learned how often drinking habits turn dangerous. According to the Oregon Partnership, up to 20% of all 14- to 17-year-olds have a serious alcohol problem.

Although high school students' reasons for drinking are mainly social, stress-related, or "just to have fun," Huggins says peer pressure plays a bigger role in drinking for 12- to 14-year olds -- the age when drinking is most likely to start. So the Oregon program is training high school students to talk with younger students. "Teens are more apt to listen to other teens, particularly those just a little older," she says.

Reaching Younger Kids

Alcohol is the number-one drug problem in America, and it starts early -- long before high school," says Kappie Bliss, who directs an elementary school pilot program for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). "Since the risk for alcohol and other drug use shoots up when children enter the sixth grade, MADD saw the need for a prevention program for children in grades one through five. We want children to know how to protect themselves, and that includes making sure their own brains have a chance to develop into the best brain possible -- undamaged physically by alcohol and able to think critically."

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