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The fierce urgency of now: a nation's need to protect its youth

The alcohol-fueled alleged serial rape of a 16-year-old Ohio girl by two of her similarly impaired classmates — not to mention the drunken videotaped commentary of others — points yet again to the imperative that adult America renews its commitment to address as a true national community those issues that most threaten the health, safety and development of youth.by: SUBMITTED - Stephen Gray Wallace

It is a priority that carries with it the fierce urgency of now. Indeed, is there a task more pressing than protecting the generation that will follow us as custodians of the future?

Among the key threats facing our kids are ones often overlooked, underplayed or enabled by adults: alcohol use and its many negative ramifications, including impaired driving.

Over the past decade, our government has laid out a blueprint for reducing “demand” among adolescents and children, beginning with the National Academies report, “Reducing Underage Drinking — A Collective Responsibility.” It is imperative that all members of adult America make it their business to join the legions of agencies, organizations, schools and families in combating underage drinking and driving.

But we have a long way to go. 

According to a study of teens by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance, the number of 16- and 17-year-olds reporting that their parents allow them to drink at home, host alcohol-included parties and drink at parties away from home is on the rise. 

For example, 37 percent of the teens revealed that their parents allow them to drink with them, up 10 percent from 2010.

Some believe that “de-mystifying” alcohol use by allowing kids to drink at home will make it less likely their teens will drink elsewhere.  But other research tells a different story.  According to a 2005 SADD Teens Today study:

n Among high school teens, those who tend to avoid alcohol are more than twice as likely as those who repeatedly use alcohol to say their parents never let them drink at home (84 percent vs. 40 percent).

n More than half (57 percent) of high school teens who report their parents allow them to drink at home, even once in a while, say they drink with their friends, as compared to just 14 percent of teens who say their parents don’t let them drink at home.

Given the known effects of alcohol on evolving teen brains and the link between early alcohol use and lifelong problems, this trend represents a concern to prevention specialists and educators.

Maybe even more alarming is the percentage of teens who admit to driving after drinking (15 percent) or using marijuana (16 percent).

Fortunately, not all the news is bad. A combination of policy, parents and peers holds some hope.

Policy: An increasing number of states are enacting social host liability laws, holding adults accountable if they provide alcohol to minors or allow alcohol-included parties in their homes.

Parents: Mom and dad remain the most powerful force in their teen’s decision-making. Conversations about safe driving and saying no to alcohol can start with them.

Peers: Friends hold a lot of power too. Eighty-seven percent of surveyed teens will ask a peer under the influence of alcohol to refrain from driving and 92 percent would agree.

A new media campaign from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Talk. They Hear You,” highlights the power and responsibility of parents.

Let’s make a resolution in our courts, our homes and our cars to address the scourge of youth substance use and the crash deaths and injuries from car crashes that often result.

That is the fierce urgency of now.

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is the senior policy adviser at SADD.




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