Reasons to be sober

photo of pug coffee cup

We’ve known for a long time that drinking is going down in young people. New analyses of data from the latest wave of the Health Survey for England have today confirmed the pattern again for 16-25 year olds. It’s not a surprise – these trends are long term (which means we’re fairly confident that it’s true), and also global. The same thing is happening throughout Europe, in the USA and further afield.  And the same thing is happening with smoking, teenage pregnancy rates, and other risk behaviours. 

So what’s going on?  The more formal, usual explanations include things like:


  • The positive effects of fairly long term period of legislating, campaigning and awareness raising. We have stricter licencing laws, much wider under 25 ID checking.  The health risks are constantly drummed home.


  • Cultural shifts. This generation is the most multicultural of recent times, with rates of ethnic minority population highest in the young, and growing groups of mixed race etc. Many of these cultures have a different relationship to alcohol & will be influencing the values of the generation. Reflected in the fact that London often leads the pack in teetotalism.


  • Awareness of and attention to wellness, self-care, and emotional health. There has certainly been a huge conversation about young people’s mental health in recent years. This increased awareness may affect their attitude to what they put in their bodies, but it may also create a more open and help-seeking approach that reduces the need to use substances as emotional crutches.


  • The cost. As we know, young people are in a difficult financial bind, stuck between a collapsing youth labour market, reduced (and very complicated) welfare support, and increased reliance on the Bank of Mum and Dad. Many are experiencing high levels of debt and most are very conscious of money.


  • A new form of youthful rebellion. Young people may be running out of ways to distinguish themselves from their parents. Maybe this is a new form of rebellion against the previous generation.


  • The headline might not reflect the experiences of important sub-groups. Although the new analyses suggest the trends cut across income groups, it is still important to understand the experience of particular marginalised groups of young people and their alcohol use for example looked after young people, young people affected by homelessness etc.

But we need to ask young people what they think.  At AYPH this is a topic that crops up frequently in our conversations with them about health. This is an informal summary of some of the messages we hear in the course of our work. There are lots of interesting new avenues to pursue here and some thought provoking points about the role of social media:


  • It’s harder to get alcohol if you’re under 18/21 than it used to be. So young people are indeed feeling the squeeze of the tighter licencing regulations.


  • Young people can resist social pressure better. In fact, at times it seems that what they are saying is that they do not want to be seen to be giving in to social pressure. If so, this is an important and positive step forward.


  • There’s more awareness about the effects. Young people will explicitly say that their physical and mental health is better off without alcohol. So some of the public health messaging has worked.


  • Alcohol is just short term fun, ‘cheap fun’, like a simple joke that’s easy to make, but that doesn’t last.


  • It’s more acceptable to be seen to be looking after yourself. This is potentially a very important generational shift.


  • Being alcohol-free may still seem boring but it doesn’t surprise people any more. It’s much easier to say you do not drink, without having to give an excuse.


  • There is more exposure to people living in different ways through the internet. In generations past, it was possible to be in a relatively limited local ‘bubble’, with all your peers drinking alcohol. Social media exposes young people to other models, different ways of doing things or living with – and without – alcohol.


  • Young people chose to do more ‘coffee catch ups’ now rather than alcohol based socialising, with the added benefit that this means they are not pressurising other people to drink either.


  • The omnipresence of social media means that young people want to be seen to be doing interesting things. This includes travelling rather than getting drunk.


  • The world is bigger and more accessible. There’s more things to do than drink.


  • There is a sense that it is better to keep alcohol for special occasions, rather than drink all the time.


  • “It’s not true ‘cause we still binge drink” (true – and an important point, even though the research showed that binge drinking is also going down).


  • It’s easier to get drugs…We’ll save that for another blog.


Young people say it’s not that they enjoy it less, it’s just that they are more conscious about it. What is sometimes called ‘mindful’ drinking. There you have it. It’s not for the first time that we feel here at AYPH that young people offer the best answers.


Dr Ann Hagell is Research Lead at the Association for Young People’s Health

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