More than one in ten 14-year-olds admit to binge drinking

24 January 2018: Just under half of young people in the UK had tried alcohol by the time they were 14, with more than one in ten confessing to binge drinking, new findings from the Millennium Cohort Study have revealed.

Researchers at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, part of the UCL Institute of Education, examined data collected from more than 11,000 14-year-olds about their experiences of a range of different risky activities, including drinking, smoking and drug-taking.

Study participants, whose lives have been tracked through the Millennium Cohort Study since they were born at the turn of the century, had previously been asked about drinking and smoking when they were 11. Comparing their answers at age 11 and at age 14, revealed big increases in the rates of both binge drinking (having five or more drinks at a time on at least one occasion) and smoking among the group. Less than 1 per cent had been binge drinking by age 11, compared to almost 11 per cent at age 14.

14-year-olds who had reached or been through puberty, and also those who identified as being gay or bisexual, were more likely to drink, smoke and/or take drugs. Teens were also at greater risk of taking up these activities if they were from a single parent family or had parents who drank frequently or took drugs. Interestingly, in the main, parents’ education neither increased nor decreased the odds of their teenage children smoking and/or drinking.

Professor Emla Fitzsimons, one of the authors of the research and director of the Millennium Cohort Study, said:

‘Our findings are a valuable insight into health-damaging behaviours among today’s teenagers right across the UK. There is clear evidence that substance use increases sharply between ages 11 and 14, and that experimentation before age 12 can lead to more habitual use by age 14. This suggests that targeting awareness and support to children at primary school should be a priority. Our analysis also highlights the groups most vulnerable to being drawn into substance use who may benefit from additional support.’

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said:

‘The findings that 5 in 10 UK teenagers of only 14 years old have tried alcohol, and that over 1 in 10 admit to binge drinking, are very concerning.

‘The chief medical officers’ advice is that an alcohol-free childhood is best. Young people are physically unable to tolerate alcohol as well as adults, and there is evidence of a wide range of short term and long term harms linked to children’s drinking. Young people who drink are more likely to engage in unsafe sex, try drugs, and fall behind in school.

‘In addition, the younger someone starts drinking, the more likely they are to develop a problem with alcohol when they are older.

‘We know from our public opinion polling that fewer than 1 in 20 people are aware of the chief medical officers’ advice around alcohol and children, and this needs to change. The government should develop national information campaigns informing the public of the guidelines on alcohol and children.

‘In addition, we know that exposure to children of alcohol advertising leads them to drink sooner and in greater quantities. Advertising on alcohol should only be allowed in newspapers and other adult press, and the government should bring an end to sponsorship of sport by alcohol companies.’