Then and now: teens change tune on ‘uncool’ drinking culture

PAST:  Adam Golding, 18, with his friend Rob Glew, 17, at the Wodonga Races in 2004. Adam grew up in a generation where parents tried to stop excess drinking by providing limited alcohol for their child. Photo: Supplied
PAST: Adam Golding, 18, with his friend Rob Glew, 17, at the Wodonga Races in 2004. Adam grew up in a generation where parents tried to stop excess drinking by providing limited alcohol for their child. Photo: Supplied

Former-Wodonga boy Adam Golding, 31, is one of a dying breed – part of the last generation to grow up thinking underage drinking to excess was ‘cool’.

Today's teenagers are turning their backs on Australia's excessive drinking culture, and shunning other drugs, in a change that has been dubbed a modern "youth revolution".

A study involving more than 41,000 Australian adolescents (average age 13.5) has observed a staggering drop in rates of teen alcohol consumption and smoking since 1999.

At the turn of the century, almost 70 per cent of surveyed teenagers had already drunk alcohol.

By 2015, that figure that dropped to 45 per cent, meaning high school students abstaining from alcohol are now in the majority.

An author of the study, Professor John Toumbourou​, said while the adult population were also showing signs of moderating their alcohol consumption, it did not compare to the sharp trend within the secondary school population.

"They are making changes that are much more dramatic to other age groups," said Professor Toumbourou, chair in health psychology at Deakin University.

"It's a new, youth-led revolution."

Colac’s Lily Parsons, 13, explains it another way.

"It's not cool," she says.

"If one of my friends drunk, I would try to stay away from them a bit."

Lily has read that it is safer to not to drink until after 21 – and she is going to "do her best" to abstain until then.

The newly published study, largely using Victorian data, found that in 1999 almost 40 per cent of surveyed students had favourable attitudes to substance use, compared to only 11 per cent in 2015.

Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of surveyed teens had tried smoking tobacco in 2015, compared to 45 per cent in 1999. Just 4 per cent had tried cannabis, compared to 15 per cent in the older generation.

Professor Toumbourou believes changing parent attitudes are one of the major factors behind the moderating behaviour of their children.

He said around the time of the Sydney Olympics some parents thought that it would be better to supervise teenagers drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol, expecting they would drink anyway.

Adam Golding, 31, was among this generation.

He grew up in Wodonga, and says he remembers his parents allowing him to bring two cans of beer to his friend's 15th birthday party.

"Other times, getting a bit older, they said you can bring a bit more – maybe six drinks each."

The technique, however, did not stop the teenagers drinking to excess anyway with alcohol obtained through other means.

Today, parents and teenagers are faced with evidence that drinking alcohol as a young person can cause permanent brain damage, including memory problems, because the brain only fully matures well into people's 20s.

Professor Toumbourou said parents may have been influenced by 2009 national guidelines recommending that teenagers abstain from alcohol altogether.