One in four Australian adults are exceeding health guidelines when it comes to alcohol consumption, latest figures reveal.
Last drinks: Among the reasons young Australians binge drink is to build social confidence and cope with stress, the researchers have found.
And with the majority consuming alcohol from the age of 14, education and early intervention measures have the potential to significantly reduce alcohol-related problems in future.
Dr Leanne Carter and Associate Professor Cynthia Webster, from the Department of Marketing at Macquarie Business School, are examining what drives these behaviours and the decision-making behind youth binge drinking – and more importantly how to change these attitudes and behaviours.
“Our research identified four reasons why young Australians engage in binge drinking. They do it to build social confidence, to connect and bond, to have fun and to cope with stress and deal with negative thoughts,” said Webster.
Reducing the prevalence of this dangerous consumption of alcohol is important at all life stages – but particularly during adolescence.
“Even before COVID, our research revealed a disturbing number of young Australians were turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.”
The five-year research program is being funded by the Momento Foundation – a charity focused on supporting young people, the underprivileged and those in need across north-western Sydney.
Momento Foundation CEO Marcello Colosimo said: “This is such an important issue and if we can come away with a pathway to help change the binge drinking culture in Australia, society will be a better place.
“We are hoping to address the cause rather than treat the problem.”
Finding a fix that works
The project aims to increase awareness of the consequences of binge drinking, and develop an educational program and other intervention strategies with a view to influence the national curriculum and policy change.
Dangerous: About half of the research participants aged 15-17 were heavy users of alcohol.
“Reducing the prevalence of this dangerous consumption of alcohol is important at all life stages – but particularly during adolescence. Alcohol consumption is detrimental to brain development and binge drinking during adolescence can lead to poor health outcomes in later life,” said Webster.
“Our research found that roughly half of our young participants aged between 15-17 years of age were heavy users of alcohol consuming between 5 to 12 standards drinks per occasion once every few weeks. We also found about a third of our older participants aged between 18-24 years were consuming six to 20 standard drinks per occasion one to three times a week,” she added.
Carter said there have been multiple attempts to change the culture through a combination of educational programs, persuasion campaigns through social marketing and government policy.
“However, the problems persist, and one of the driving forces for our research is finding more effective methods of intervention and education. If you can build those healthy habits early you are setting our young people up for success,” said Carter.
“Together with education researchers from University of Tasmania and Western Sydney University, we are currently piloting an intervention program to improve the drinking culture of Australian youth.
“The overall objective of this research is to develop and test an educational program that aims to reduce alcohol consumption and related risky behaviour among students in years 11-12,” Carter added.
300 Sydney students take part
Several secondary schools in Sydney metropolitan area are participating with some 300 students involved. Year 11 students undertake six modules online, participate in three online surveys and attend a focus group at the end of the pilot.
Health first: Sport and music are two alternatives to the drinking culture that could be encouraged, researchers say.
Feedback from schools suggests students find the modules engaging; the teacher resources provide great support and parents have been happy to provide consent.
“As schools get back to usual business post-COVID lockdowns, we will extend this pilot into regional areas across NSW. Once data has been analysed and the program refined, it can be integrated into the school PHDPE program,” Carter said.
The last stage of the project, Webster said, is to undertake a national survey of parents and children “to identify how to better educate our children and give them tools to be able to resist the temptations of binge drinking”.
“We need to create and encourage take-up of positive alternatives to the drinking culture so ingrained in our way of life,” Webster said.
“Sport and music are two important alternatives. We need to educate youngsters that these are healthier ways to deal with stress while also facilitating good social interaction.
“At a broader societal level, we are looking to change policy so that roles and the responsibilities of youth, young adults, parents, and the hospitality industry can be more closely aligned.”
Dr Leanne Carter is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Marketing.
Cynthia Webster is Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing.