It is not levels of underage drinking, but early signs of antisocial behaviour that best predict future alcohol-related trouble and continued alcohol use by young people. This conclusion is drawn from a study led by Robert Young of the Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow.
Published in the Journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, the study reveals that the strongest predictor of alcohol-related trouble among 15 year-olds is a history of antisocial behaviour rather than their actual drinking habits.
Over a period of four years lead researcher Young and colleagues worked with more than 2,000 school pupils between the ages of 11 and 15 to examine the relationship between under-age drinking, antisocial behaviour and alcohol-related trouble. The pupils completed regular surveys that asked about their alcohol consumption and behaviour.
Robert Young said:
“This research suggests the problem is not that drinking in young people inevitably leads to antisocial behaviour, but rather it is young people who already have a violent or antisocial tendency who are more likely to carry out antisocial acts when drinking.”
He added: “Over the long-term, it is past antisocial behaviour, even as early as primary school, which predicts future drinking, rather then the reverse. Young people who have an antisocial past are much more likely to drink heavily or get into alcohol-related trouble in the future.”
The results show that people who are inclined to behave badly are particularly prone to alcohol-related trouble. Alcohol can have the added effect of making trivial disputes worse – so even those with more moderate antisocial tendencies may be affected. Young people who got their alcohol from shops, bars, clubs, friends or siblings were more likely to both behave antisocially and indulge in increasing amounts of alcohol. In comparison, young people given alcohol by their parents were less likely to behave antisocially and escalate alcohol use. The results were equally valid for both girls and boys.
The team used the survey information to look for patterns of behaviour using three known potential patterns: disinhibition whereby drinking leads to antisocial behaviour, susceptibility in which antisocial tendencies lead to drinking and escalation whereby both antisocial tendencies and drinking fuel more of the other.
The information provided by the school pupils showed that a pattern of susceptibility dominated. This means that individuals who displayed antisocial tendencies at a young age were much more likely to drink when they are older.
Almost no evidence of alcohol leading to antisocial behaviour a disinhibition pattern, was found. Some evidence for an escalating pattern was found, but only when the researchers focused on short-term links between drinking alcohol and antisocial behaviour.
– Study detail: 2,586 young people were surveyed during their final year of primary school (age 11, in 1994-5) and again at ages 13 and 15 (in 1999). They were asked about drinking (amount drank, times drunk, length of time drinking), antisocial behaviour (truancy, fighting, breaking rules, likelihood of future trouble with police, etc) and alcohol-related trouble (problems with police, fights, arguments, etc, due to drinking), social background and where they obtained their alcohol.
– Though only 2% of 11 year olds said they had been “really drunk” this rose to 27% at age 13 and a majority of young people, 59%, at age 15. Only a small minority of underage drinkers get into alcohol-related trouble; at age 15, 10% had got into an argument, 8% been in trouble with the police, 5% been in a physical fight, 3% missed school and 2% put themselves at risk of seriously injuring themselves due to drinking.
– The MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit was created in 1998 to promote human health via the study of social and environmental influences on health. (www.sphsu.mrc.ac.uk) The Unit’s Young People’s Health and Health Behaviour programme seeks to understand the range of influences on young people’s health and health behaviours, particularly those associated with the family, school, peer group and youth culture, which may either mediate broader social structural influences or cut across them to promote common experiences, behaviours or attitudes.