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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         Phil's Diary October 12, 2009



Did boffins once have teenage kicks?

Were grown-ups once young people? Or are they different species? I sometimes wonder. Another po-faced report into teenage drinking, this time from the jazzily named BioMed Central, hit the headlines for – if you didn’t read it properly – recommending that parents provide their kids with booze.

What the research was more coyly saying was that alcohol-related harms are, up to a point, reduced where 15 and 16 year-olds are allowed to drink in the home.

This corresponds to the popular view that it’s best for children to be introduced to alcohol in a ‘normal’ relaxed way, rather than it be hidden from them so that it gains cache and they go beserk when finally allowed access to it.

It doesn’t sit nicely, though, with the Chief Medical Officer’s latest recommendation that, ideally, 15 and 16 year-olds shouldn’t drink at all, so the report ties itself in a few knots over that.

Anyway, I remain sceptical about the scientific value of assessing adolescent experiences with drink. Macandrew and Edgerton’s classic anthropological study, Drunken Comportment, argues convincingly that rather than the drink affecting us directly, drinking is socially and culturally mediated. We learn what alcohol is supposed to do to us, and we behave accordingly.

As we gain more experience with drink it’s likely that this effect is weakened. But, without underestimating the cynicism of our youth, surely a 15-year-old is not going to want to feel left out of what's supposed to happen to them when they’re in drink. And if they believe the media, politicians and doctors they’ve learned they must have had a wild old time. Even if they didn't.

It might be more scientific if researchers try to think back about what they did when they were young. Assuming, of course, they were young once and didn't spring out of the womb white-coated and boffined.

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