Wednesday 22 May 2019

Irish teens are starting to drink at age 13

Nearly one in three have suffered some kind of personal injury or harm due to their own drinking (picture posed)
Nearly one in three have suffered some kind of personal injury or harm due to their own drinking (picture posed)

Joyce Fegan

Alarming new figures that show adolescents are developing harmful alcohol habits from a very young age

Irish teenagers are now consuming alcohol as young as 13 years of age and according to the most recent study, 83pc of our adolescents have drank at least once. However, experts warn the problem and solution do not lie solely on the shoulders of our young people because they are learning how to relate to alcohol simply by watching the adults in their lives.

In the last three years seven major studies, looking at how our young people consume alcohol, have been published and the most telling piece of research comes from data collected from 26 schools in Cork.

The results published just this year show that out of 2,716 teenagers, between the ages of 15 and 17, 2,424 said they had consumed alcohol at least once - that is 83pc.

STREETS OF SHAME: Dublin is a shambles due to excessive and underage drinking
STREETS OF SHAME: Dublin is a shambles due to excessive and underage drinking

Of these secondary school students, 50pc admitted to drinking between one and five units of alcohol in an ordinary week and 37pc said they had been "really drunk" on one to three occasions in the previous month.

Interestingly, the piece of research, which was published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, was focused on the association between parental and adolescent substance misuse. Two of Ireland's leading experts told the Irish Independent that our teens' drinking simply mirrors what Irish adults are doing.

"One young person said to me they would wait until their mum had book club or their friends over because there's so much drinking going on in the house among the adults that they don't notice if some alcohol goes missing," said Joanna Fortune of Solamh, a clinical psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent psychotherapy.

"So be really aware that young people are looking and taking their lead from their parents' relationship with alcohol," she added.

Opinion: David Coleman: We're teaching our kids to binge by our own misuse

Dr Bobby Smyth, a psychiatrist who specialises in adolescent addiction, agrees with Ms Fortune.


"I'm convinced the drinking situation for teenagers is no worse now than it was 10 years ago. My guess is that it's actually a little better, but the way adolescents are drinking is mirroring the way adults are drinking, where people tend to drink to get drunk," Dr Smyth said.

Both experts, who work with adolescents daily, also agree on the drop in age that our young people have started consuming alcohol at.

"Something I've noticed in the last five years is that the point of entry to drinking is getting as young as 13. In all honesty, five, six years ago we would have been talking about 16-year-olds drinking, that's a significant difference in a short period of time and it's something I hear a lot," said Ms Fortune.

Dr Smyth added: "People are now routinely starting to drink at the age of 14, which is a couple of years lower than it was a generation ago. To drink in an unhealthy way in Ireland is sort of the norm."

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) global status report on alcohol and health in 2014 showed that Ireland has the second highest rate of binge drinking in the world. It found that 39pc of all Irish people aged 15 years old and over had engaged in binge drinking, or "heavy episodic drinking", in the past 30 days.

This puts Ireland just behind Austria (40.5pc) at the top of the 194 countries studied and well ahead of our neighbours in Britain (28pc). Positively however, Irish research also published last year, indicated a decrease in the number of our adolescents drinking.

The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Ireland Trends Report 1998-2010 showed there was a 1pc decrease between 1998 and 2010 - 29.3pc to 28.3pc - in the number of children who had ever been drunk.

However, interestingly, that reduction was due to less boys getting drunk (34.8pc down to 29.7pc), while there was an increase in the number of girls who had been drunk during that period - 24pc up to 26.8pc.

A spokesman for AAI said that in order to address the alcohol consumption of our teenagers it is futile to just "point the finger" at them.

"When it comes to drinking, young people are, in many ways, a product of their environment and we have created an environment for them that is saturated with alcohol. We have normalised heavy drinking."

Ms Fortune says adults play a vital role in changing how our young people relate to alcohol.

"Parents can help by being aware of how they relate to alcohol and how much alcohol is in the house. Talk openly to your children about alcohol, about what is and isn't OK, talk about limits and boundaries and how to keep themselves safe.

"Be aware of whose house they are going to most often and get to know those parents and get to know the rules in that house.

"Be really open and say, 'bring your friends over, I'd like to get to know them,' and be the one that can be an influence and a positive go-to," advised Ms Fortune.

And the psychotherapist believes one piece of advice is essential: "Make sure your teenager knows, that no matter what goes wrong when they may be out or however bad the situation can get, that they can call you."

For more information on where to get help for alcohol abuse, contact your local HSE office or visit

Case Study Aiseiri helped me get sober

'I started drinking when I was 11 years old. A grandparent had died and there were cousins a bit older than me. I had a lot of feelings of loss and hurt, so when they were drinking on the sly I joined in. It didn't become a big problem until I was about 13.

I'd say I was going to the cinema, but instead I'd be waiting outside the off licence with mates for someone to buy us a few cans or a flagon of cider. I lied to my parents a lot and I was good at hiding it.

I remember when I was about 16 a friend invited me up to watch the rugby with a few cans. I arrived with a box of Budweiser, and was half shocked to see them with three or four cans each. I remember thinking "what's the point of that?". Friends would ask me, why can't you just have one or two and enjoy yourself, but I had to drink to get annihilated, never for fun.

When I was 18, I was in deep, physically and mentally. My parents knew there was something wrong, but I was never home and when I was, I was in bed. I was barely 10st at 6ft 2in, was in serious debt and was alienating all my family and friends. I was in deep despair, self-harming and I eventually broke down to my parents and said I couldn't do it anymore.

I really wanted to get clean, I was going to go in to Aiseiri for six weeks. In the past I'd been willing to give up some parts of my lifestyle and not others, but this time I really wanted to stop. The staff were so supportive and taught me so much - about my triggers, the people I'd been spending time with, dangerous situations for me to be in. They helped me figure out why I was drinking, and how I could stop.

I'm now 22, nearly four years sober. The after-care for two years was really important because it's easy to stay clean when you're in treatment - it's afterwards that's tough, but I was able to phone them if I needed to.

The first year was especially tough because I had to delete my Facebook and change my phone number, basically give up my old life and friends, and it was quite isolating. The release isn't like in the movies! But it was totally necessary, and now life is absolutely brilliant. I'm working with my father, have a great relationship with my family and I'm genuinely happy."

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