(CBS) – In America, there are a number of epidemics endangering our kids. Some, like opioids and vaping, are relatively new. Others, like binge drinking, have been around for decades, but the nature of the crisis has evolved.
Binge drinking has become normalized among American high school and college students to an extent that would shock many parents. The new CBSN Originals documentary, “Drinking Culture: American Kids and the Danger of Being Cool,” takes a hard look at why so many teens consider it “cool” to binge drink and how that perception has contributed to the prevalence of disturbing phenomena like “blacking out” and alcohol-fueled sexual assault.
And while the problem is widespread, certain American kids are more likely than others to participate. In particular, experts say economic privilege is a factor.
“There are some studies that show that a lot of kids who grow up in affluent suburban communities grow up in communities where the adults around them drink a lot. And they’re going to model that behavior,” explains Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University. “They also may have access to alcohol from the alcohol that their parents have purchased and have at home. So, you know, we often think that money and privilege is a protective condition. But I think in this case, it may be associated with actually more dangerous behavior.”
“They have access to money,” concurs Julie Fenn, a clinical social worker in the Massachusetts public school system. “In households where two parents have college degrees or secondary degrees beyond that, there’s a higher rate of alcohol use among kids. … Parents who are highly educated will think their kids will never do it. Or they’re at work or traveling and kids are left alone more, or aren’t supervised as closely. Then you do see higher rates of alcohol abuse. You can see that nationally in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System — communities that are of higher socioeconomic status are at the higher end of that.”
And it’s not just privilege. Data shows that race plays a role too.
“In general, African American kids are less likely to binge drink,” said Steinberg, an internationally recognized expert on psychological development and risk-taking during adolescence. “And white kids and Latino kids are more likely to binge drink.”
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as four drinks for women and five drinks for men over the span of two hours. In a 2017 survey by the CDC, 13.5 percent of high school students reported binge drinking at least once in the previous 30 days. For white teens, the figure was 15.7 percent, compared to 14 percent for Hispanic youth and just 5.6 percent for black teens.
The differences, Steinberg said, are rooted in socialization and culture.
“I think that we’re socialized to have particular attitudes toward alcohol, just like anything else. And alcohol is not as tolerated in the African American community, in terms of something that one overindulges. So I think we’re all brought up with values that are given to us by our parents and by other people that we associate with. And to the extent that those values and attitudes are shaped by culture, you’re going to see cultural and racial and national differences in the extent of binge drinking and other kinds of alcohol use.”
Across the board, teenagers are more susceptible than adults to dangerous behavior. Their brains are still developing. And the neurological areas responsible for life skills like judgment and decision-making are still in flux. Biology, however, isn’t the only factor at play. And in this case, it seems socioeconomic factors are also influential when it comes to predicting susceptibility to alcohol abuse.
“Even though adolescence is a risky time in human development, it is a time that’s characterized by more problems in some parts of the world than in others,” Steinberg said. “So we look, let’s say, to Asia as an example. Lots of adolescents there don’t engage in the same kind of risky and reckless behavior. So even though I think it’s tempting to look at the adolescent brain as an explanation for everything, we can’t discount the important role that culture plays.