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Do you let your kids drink? Utah has a message for you

Signage from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s Parents Empowered campaign reminds parents of the harm underage drinking can have on developing brains. April 26, 2024
Sean Higgins
Signage from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s Parents Empowered campaign reminds parents of the harm underage drinking can have on developing brains. April 26, 2024

If you’ve been to a Utah liquor store recently, you might have noticed new signs on the door or by the cash register.

They’re from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services and target underage drinking. It’s a part of April’s alcohol awareness month.

According to data from the 2023 Utah Department of Health and Human Services’ Student Health and Risk Prevention survey, 49% of Utah teens who drink have their parents’ approval. DABS wants to do something about that.

“We know that the brain is developing really until ages 21 to 25,” said DABS Director Tiffany Clason. “The benefits of not drinking before you're legally supposed to only make for healthy, well developed, likely more addiction-free youth.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, it is “clear that alcohol use interferes with cognitive and neural development during adolescence.”

Still, Utah has one of the lowest rates of underage drinking in the country. For Clason and her staff, it’s worth talking to those who have more relaxed attitudes toward alcohol.

“We would love for those parents to have better information on the scientific research behind that, so that they can make more well-rounded, data informed decisions.”

A 2021 study led by Utah State University professor of Human Development and Family Studies Shawn Whiteman found that nationwide, parental acceptance of drinking grew during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whiteman looked at 456 parents in several states with two children at least 2.5 years apart who had not previously been allowed to have alcohol. He said one in six “newly allowed at least one adolescent, in many cases, both adolescents, to drink alcohol at family occasions during the pandemic.”

“Alcohol is a readily available substance,” he said. “It's legal for parents to use and so is likely available in the households … One of our hypotheses was that it was one way for parents to provide special treats and permission or special allowances during a difficult time when other things were taken away.”

Whiteman and his colleagues followed up on their research, and the new findings will be published later this year.

“What we observed in our data was that the youth who were introduced to alcohol by their parents during the pandemic grew their alcohol use,” he said.

“Heavy episodic drinking or binge drinking grew at rates faster than those who were not introduced to alcohol and had not used it before.”

That said, those teens didn’t increase their drinking as much as kids who had already used alcohol without parental supervision.

Seasonality can also play a role.

With school graduations approaching and temperatures climbing, underage drinking — and parental acceptance of it — typically rises over the summer.

“That's in part due to less supervised time. One of the reasons that parents do allow alcohol is for special occasions and celebrations at family events and things of that nature. And there seem to be more of those in the summer.”

With research showing alcohol’s adverse health effects to the underage brain, even when alcohol is introduced in a safe setting, experts say there isn’t an upside to drinking at home.

“It's often thought of as a protective behavior or socializing behavior going to teach you how to use it responsibly,” Whiteman said. “And although those intentions may be positive, there is some evidence, at least, that suggests that earlier introduction to alcohol is related to worse patterns over time.”

He added those outcomes are still better than those for teens who use alcohol without the knowledge of their parents.

That’s where DABS and its Parents Empowered campaign come in. Clason wants to equip parents with the right tools to have constructive conversations with their children about the risks and expectations around alcohol.

“We have an easy thing to remember: ‘the five Ws,’” she said.

“So as you're talking to your children, if you're going to be hanging out with friends or they're making plans, ask who, what, when, where, and will there be alcohol? Those are five easy ways to make sure that your kids know you're engaged and interested in where they're going to be and what they're going to be doing.”

The DABS informational posters will be in liquor stores through June.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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