Do you remember your first alcoholic drink? Was it a sip of wine at the family table or some pilfered bar cabinet hooch offered by a friend?
The drink itself isn't material – but the person who gave it to you is. Adolescents who get their first drink from a friend are more likely to drink sooner in life, according to a new study from the University of Iowa published in the journal Pediatrics. And since early drinking is a known factor in later alcohol abuse, researchers are keen to unravel the connections – possibly curbing problem drinking before it starts.
"When you start drinking, even with kids who come from alcoholic families, they don't get their first drinks from their family," said Samuel Kuperman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the UI said in a piece on the university's website. "They get their first drinks from their friends. They have to be able to get it. If they have friends who have alcohol, then it's easier for them to have that first drink."
Kuperman and his colleagues examined data from 820 adolescents aged 14 to17 years old at six sites across the United States. Their median age was 15.5, which has been found to be the typical age of an adolescent's first drink found in previous studies, according to the site.
Among those adolescents who said they've had alcohol, nearly four in ten said their best friends also drank. And adolescents whose best friend used alcohol were twice as likely to have a first drink at an early age, reports the site.
"There's something driving kids to drink," explains Kuperman, a corresponding author on the paper. "Maybe it's the coolness factor or some mystique about it. So, we're trying to educate kids about the risks associated with drinking and give them alternatives."
Other important factors included disruptive behaviour, a family history of alcohol dependence, and poor social skills, according to the site. But none is as important as that best friend.
"Family history doesn't necessarily drive the age of first drink," Kuperman said. "It's access. At that age (14 or 15), access trumps all. As they get older, then family history plays a larger role."
Kuperman said the next stage of his research is to examine whether after this initiation, a genetic link to alcohol-abusing parents makes some teens more likely to follow in their path.
In the meantime, parents, you now have (some) proof to back up your desire to screen all those no-good friends your kids have. Good luck with that.