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A Teen Drinking Primer

Partying at Home


Saint Patrick’s Day fell on Thursday of this week. To commemorate this much-treasured ethno-religious holiday, many of us (the teenagers of Santa Barbara) got drunk. Parents and guardians shouldn’t be surprised—42 percent of local juniors have used some kind of no-no substance in the last month, at least according to that California Healthy Kids Survey we all took in 2010.

Add to the holiday spirit the fact that standardized tests are fast-encroaching (SATs may be over, but we still have AP, IB, SAT Subject, and STAR Subject tests to look forward to) and its easy to understand why students feel inclined to blow off a little foam—I mean steam. Those of us who prefer pot to Pabst will be waiting to light up in celebration on April 20 (4/20 Day, a.k.a. Marijuana Appreciation Day), but St. Patty’s Day is all about the alcohol.

By now, if you’re a parent, you’re worried: You mean my little angel is going to kick back a cold one?

Avery Hardy

Here’s the bad news. When we drink, we drink seriously. We’re not fussing around with O’Doul’s or Miller Lite. We like beer (and beer pong) but hard alcohol usually comes through in the end. Half of us drink to get drunk, which can lead to serious developmental problems. It’s already almost common knowledge that teens under age 15 who drink alcohol are up to six times as likely to run into problems like addiction.

But here’s the better news. If your kid’s drinking, there’s a good chance he or she is being pretty safe about it. We Santa Barbarian youth may pride ourselves on our ability to work hard and play hard, but we’re notoriously well bred, too. Two-thirds of us juniors have never ever (not even once!) driven after having a drink, nor been in a car with a driver who’d had a drink. When it comes to alcohol, we’re more about the hedonistic enjoyment than filling the gaping hole inside our deepy-weepy angsty teenage hearts.

I don’t mean to advocate for underage drinking. When it comes down to it, teenage drinking is illegal. Drinking also isn’t a graduated privilege like driving, where you get your permit and then a provisional license and then your full license.

At the same time, though, factors like our proximity to Isla Vista don’t bode well for good decision-making. Parents need to be aware of this. Alcohol is present, it is accessible, and it is fun for teens (either for the sensation of intoxication or the “forbidden fruit” of doing something you’re not supposed to do).

Some parents are adopting the strategy of allowing their teens to drink alcohol and even throw parties at home, under their supervision. Obviously, there’s a lot of gray area here. It’s hard for parents to ensure that all the teens who attend have permission to drink under their roof. Beyond that, it’s illegal in the unincorporated areas of the county, thanks to the “social host” ordinance that holds parents legally responsible if they provide alcohol, even indirectly, to minors, in a social setting, even within the confines of the home. In other words, it’s still breaking the law to let your kid and his or her friends pop back a couple White Russians.

But this is a trend that’s not to be ignored. While fewer teens today drink than in 1980, those who do drink are more likely to be binge drinkers. A parent can help teens regulate how much they drink. It’s hard to say whether or not parents who let their teens drink at home are actually present the whole time, or whether there’s a well-deserved trust that the teens will respect reasonable limits. Even so, though, any teenager knows that the sheer presence of an adult changes the dynamic. You aren’t going to be jumping off the roof into the swimming pool at three in the morning. You won’t be lighting anyone’s foliage on fire. There’s a new limit in place—unspoken, but still enforced—of reasonable behavior, even under the influence.

Also, drinking alcohol that parents have provided is a lot less questionable than slurping from a communal empty water bottle filled from some rubbing alcohol-resemblant mix of gin, vodka, and mystery liqueur. We teens often go for the cheapest and (usually) lowest quality stuff we can find, just so long as it can get the job done. Adults have learned to be more discriminating and safer with their choices. And if things somehow take a turn for the worse and someone needs medical attention, an adult is a lot better equipped to handle the situation than a teen is.

Kids who drink at home aren’t going to be on the streets at night, and since traffic accidents are the biggest concern with underage drinking in Santa Barbara (according to SBPD Lieutenant Paul McCaffrey), this is at least a step toward fewer accidents. True, few parents are handing out permission slips for their teens to pass out to friends, to regulate whose parents approve of them drinking. But which is riskier: a small group of teens drinking in a residential neighborhood with a parent around, or a group of kids swishing down some unknown liquor from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag on State Street at 11 p.m. on a Friday night?

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