Sneaking an occasional beer with friends could actually be a good thing for teens - especially girls - according to new research that upends typically negative views on teens and alcohol.
Timothy Owens, a sociology professor at Purdue University in Indiana, found that high school girls who drank once or twice with their friends in the past month were less likely to feel depressed than those who didn't.
"The realistic explanation is that teens drink for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to blow off steam, get together, have fun, joke around with their peers," Owens says.
"Getting out with their friends and maybe having a few beers can actually have a positive effect on some, especially girls. It can loosen them up, but even more important, it gets them interacting with their peers.
"And because girls especially value building and maintaining social relationships, it seems to have a positive effect on how they feel," he adds.
However, Owens emphasizes that the study found this to be true for a few drinks with friends - not binge-drinking or getting drunk regularly - and any parent who notices their teen drinking alone has reason to be concerned. The study looked at the relationship between teen drinking and generally feeling down in the dumps, not clinical depression, he says.
Interestingly, there was little relationship between boys' drinking and emotional well-being, Owens says, which likely reflects the different ways they socialize and are expected to behave.
"For many teenagers, drinking is a social activity, so we wanted to know, if so, how does it affect other parts of their lives?"
Studies show that, by the end of high school, half of all teens have had at least one drink and it's almost always with friends, he says, while one-fifth of Grade 10 students and one-third of Grade 12 students say they've been drunk.
"We forget a lot of that in our research because most research is oriented toward addressing a problem, rather than looking at the normal experiences of teenagers," Owens says. "We wanted to look at it open-mindedly."
Owens says his research explored two theories about the relationship between depression and drinking. The "push theory" suggests people are induced to drink to deal with negative moods, while the "pull theory" says people are drawn to drinking in a social atmosphere as a way to enhance their mood.
The push theory is prominent in the public imagination with the notion of adults needing a stiff drink after a bad day, he says, but his research suggests that doesn't hold up with teenagers. In fact, Owens found teens are less likely to go out drinking if they're feeling low - particularly boys in their early high school years and girls in the later years. He speculates this is because they're less likely to seek out others and prefer to be alone when in that frame of mind.
"Contrary to popular belief, teens in the emotional doldrums aren't induced to drink, at least in the short-term," he says.
The research included just over 1,000 high school students, and the results are published in the Journal of Adolescence.
Owens said he was inspired to conduct this research by his three children, who were all teenagers when he started the study, and by memories of the basement beer parties he attended as a teenager.
"I just wanted to look at this from a parent's point of view," he says.
By Shannon Proudfoot
Canwest News Service
September 5, 2009