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Underage Drinking

"We Turned Out Okay": That Doesn't Mean Your Kids Will

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“I did [insert risky activity here], and I turned out fine!”

Chances are you’ve heard some variation of this phrase before, said by someone in reference to a dangerous situation they’ve gone through. They believe that because they went through a situation and survived it, anyone can. This assumption is based on survivorship bias, which is the error of judging only the survivors of a situation and forgetting about the unseen non-survivors.

Survivorship Bias

Perhaps the most famous example of survivorship bias is from World War II. In an effort to reduce the number of planes lost in the war, US researchers analyzed the damage on the planes that made it back and decided they should reinforce the most damaged areas. However, statistician Abraham Wald stepped in and pointed out their flaw: they were not accounting for the planes that didn’t make it back. It could be assumed that those planes were hit somewhere else and were not able to handle that damage. Therefore, the planes that came back gave a representation of the places that could withstand damage and did not need extra reinforcement. In completely disregarding the planes that didn’t come back and only looking at the surviving planes, the researchers demonstrated survivorship bias.

Another example of survivorship bias is the attitude towards dropping out of college, and how it supposedly plays a role in achieving unrealistic success. Think about the famous success stories of college dropouts that went on to become millionaires -- Bill Gates, Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs. Lots of people selectively use those examples as a rationale that people who drop out of college are ultimately more successful than people who do not. This faulty argument focuses solely on the few big success stories while ignoring the millions of students who drop out of college and do not achieve outlandish accomplishments, or even mediocre successes.

Survivorship bias often comes up in the discussion of underage drinking and substance misuse. Parents who grew up drinking or doing drugs give their experience as a reason that their kids can do the same: “I drank in high school, and I didn’t get hurt!” However, this argument completely ignores all the kids who misuse substances and go on to experience negative consequences. It is based entirely on personal experience, which is not credible across populations.

This attitude towards illicit substance use - flawed by survivorship bias - causes many parents to relax rules towards alcohol for their children, both in and away from the home.

Underage Alcohol Consumption & Parental Influence

Underage drinking has countless negative effects. Every year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 5,000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related causes. Besides death, other effects of underage drinking include:

  • Worse mental health
  • Impaired decision-making
  • School-related problems
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in other substance misuse
  • And more

Parents sometimes underestimate their influence on the decisions of their children. When parents have a relaxed attitude toward underage drinking, their children are more likely to drink. This sets them up to fall into substance misuse habits early on and suffer the consequences that come with them. The number of parents letting their children drink is growing. Click here to read about the rising number of parents letting their children drink at home and how it is affecting the children.

On the other hand, when parents do not allow their children to drink and make the rules clear, children are more likely to follow. In a survey conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), it was found that “Teens whose parents told them underage drinking is completely unacceptable are 80 percent less likely to drink, compared with those whose parents give their teens other messages about drinking.”

Parents have a huge influence on their teens. Whether parents’ influence is positive or negative is up to them.

What can you do?

Anyone who says something like “I did it, and I turned out fine” is disregarding a whole group of people who did not turn out fine. Parents, teachers, and any adults who have an influence on a young person’s life need to remember that their experience does not apply to everyone’s experience. Just because someone has had experience with substance misuse and survived it does not mean that it is not dangerous to anyone else. Some steps to help your child avoid substance misuse include:

  • Positive, honest communication: talk with them about substances early and often
  • Consider their point of view
  • Establish rules, set boundaries, and be clear about goals

You want the best for your teens. Keep them safe from substance misuse by acknowledging its dangers and fighting to prevent their involvement.

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