Underage Drinking

Trends trickling to even younger ages

By Laura Higley

Underage drinking is a problem that plagues many college campuses, but recent evidence suggests that students are having their first taste of alcohol at a much younger age.

“I don’t think that many students taste their first drink of alcohol in college anymore,” said Daniel Stewart, dean of student services at Flagler College.

According to Students Against Destructive Decisions, 80 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol.

“I started drinking in high school because it was something I wanted to explore,” said Joe Sessock, a Flagler College junior. “I think some kids might start drinking because of peer pressure in an effort to fit in.”

The heart of the issue is not that most college students are drinking because it is a new experience, but because they’ve been doing it since they were teenagers.

“The majority of students are already established in drinking by the time they get to college,” Stewart said. “Students are social-norming, which is where their perception doesn’t match the reality of the situation.”

Young people are beginning to think they are almost invincible, and seeing underage drinking as a rule that can easily be broken.

“In high school, no one had a problem getting alcohol,” said Cobb Vickers, a Flagler College junior. “Someone always had a fake ID, or their parents would buy it.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of ninth graders reported trying alcohol before they were 13 years old.

“Kids and high school students drink because of boredom and a need for acceptance,” said Russ Lowe, a Flagler College freshman.

In the 2005 Monitoring the Future study, three-fourths of 12th-graders, more than two-thirds of 10th-graders and about two of every five eighth-graders had consumed alcohol.

“I had my first drink when I was 16, but I didn’t actually start getting drunk until I was 17,” said Chuck Riffenburg, a local St. Augustine resident. “I think alcohol is more of a gateway drug than anything else.”

Teachers are becoming concerned with the rising problem of drinking as it permeates into even younger age groups.

“Growing up surrounded by alcohol, drugs and other destructive behaviors, kids are more adept to do things like drinking,” said Missie Simcoe, a third-grade teacher at Crookshank Elementary School in St. Augustine.

Statistics from the Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey showed that St. Johns County has one of the highest 30-day alcohol usage rates among teenagers in the state, with its students above the state average.

“The St. Johns County School District provides prevention education at the middle school and high school levels,” said Leslie Brading with Instructional Services for Safe and Drug Free Schools in St. Johns County.

It has become more difficult to find teenagers who haven’t tried alcohol before they graduated high school.

“I was one of the few who didn’t drink alcohol as a teenager,” said Amy Maddox, a Flagler College junior. “I think that once students get into the aspect of drinking, they drink all the time because they don’t think about the consequences of it anymore.”

According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, more than 5 million high school students admit to binge drinking at least once a month. Often, what starts as a taste of alcohol progresses into a dangerous addiction.

“I think students drink excessively at Flagler because they believe this helps them fit the role of a typical college student,” Maddox said.

The age when kids are starting to drink continues to drop lower and lower. Children are seeing their older siblings and friends consuming alcohol, and wanting to seem grown up, they begin to drink at an alarmingly young age. Instead of drinking being designated as a “college thing,” it has trickled down to younger kids.

“I think my influence could have played a part in my sisters starting to drink when they were 13 and 15 years old, because they saw me do the same thing when I was in high school,” Sessock said. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”

Pressure continues to be placed on middle school and high school students to fit in and conform to their peers.

“I have a 13-year-old brother, and I’m concerned that he’s going to start drinking, due to the amount of middle school students who are consuming alcohol,” Maddox said. “Although I never drank in high school, I think the pressure to drink has risen since then, and he might be susceptible to this growing trend.”

Not all students began drinking before college though.

“I waited until after high school to start drinking, because I was never interested in it,” said Brandon Moser, a Flagler College sophomore. “When I got to college, I almost felt that life in St. Augustine was too slow-paced not to drink, and this combined with curiosity led to my first beer.”

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is the leading cause of death of people under 21, with 5,000 deaths annually.

“Living in a college town, drinking was so accessible, and kids just drank from water bottles,” said Angela Thompson, a 30-year-old recovering alcoholic. “The first time I drank, I was 18 and attending the University of Florida. I ended up being in an accident with a semi and falling into a coma that consumed a year of my life.”

Not thinking about the detrimental effects of drinking, kids are rationalizing their actions.

“We’re young right now,” Maddox said. “It’s all about living in the moment, and we don’t think about what can happen later on. We just want to have fun and cross those bridges when we’re older.”

Being naïve instead of educated about alcohol, teenagers are flirting with a dangerous issue that could permanently alter their lives. There is a lack of responsibility from both the parents and other influencers when it comes to drinking.

“Parents and communities provide an important part in prevention efforts,” Brading said. “The community social norms in St. Johns County need to reflect the fact that underage drinking is not lawful, and puts teenagers at risk.”

Instead of compromising and allowing this problem to escalate, many feel that some sort of action needs to be taken to prevent this from continuing.

“We think of alcohol as a relief from our stresses, but in actuality it opens a plethora of other issues, and introduces additional stresses into our lives,” Maddox said. “When you drink, you make stupid decisions that you might not have made if you weren’t under the influence of alcohol.”

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