Younger people are drinking less alcohol. Here’s why — and what the rest of us can learn from them.

Young woman enjoying a beverage
A number of factors, including fundamental changes in parenting styles, are driving the decline of alcohol use among young people. (Getty Images)

New research finds that young people aren’t as interested in drinking alcohol as the generations that came before them. A study just published in the journal Alcohol: Clinical & Experimental Research found that teens and young adults are increasingly choosing to avoid alcohol. Conversely, more adults are binge drinking than in the past.

The findings line up with recent survey results from Gallup that found the percentages of 18- to 34-year-olds who say that they drink is dropping. The researchers found that younger adults who say they drink fell from 72% to 62% over the last two decades, and only 61% of those surveyed said they had an alcoholic drink within the past seven days, a marker that suggests someone is a regular drinker.

This isn’t a bad trend, given the negative health affects associated with alcohol use. But why are younger Americans drinking less, and what habits can older adults who want to cut back adopt? Experts weigh in.

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Medical professionals say that there are a few reasons behind this trend, including a shift in social norms. “When I speak to parents, I remind them that it is important not to assume that their kids will use alcohol,” Danielle Dick, director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Our kids are making healthier choices than many of us did at their age.”

But kids may also have less opportunities to drink, Dick says, noting that there has been a “radical shift” over the past generation in the way kids are raised. “For many of us who are parents of emerging adults, we remember playing unsupervised in the neighborhood with friends when we were adolescents,” she says. “That is increasingly rare. Because children spend so much more time under the supervision and direct guidance of their parents, they are far less likely to have unsupervised time with peers, which is when most adolescent alcohol use takes place.” Dick says that there is “robust evidence” that kids are less likely to take risks, including using alcohol, when their parents keep a closer eye on them.

At the same time, kids have learned more about the dangers and consequences of risky alcohol use than in the past. “Younger generations are somewhat more aware of health implications related to drinking and perhaps more concerned about that,” says Kelli Parks, a trauma therapist at addiction treatment center Sierra Tucson.

“We also have more effective, evidence-based prevention programs now that help adolescents and emerging adults evaluate their choices surrounding alcohol use,” Dick says. “The ‘Just Say No’ drug prevention programs that were rampant when many of us parents were younger are now known to be ineffective at preventing adolescent substance use. We are providing our kids with better information, and they are making better choices.”

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in many states could also play a role, with more kids turning to pot and edibles than previous generations, says Dr. Howard Forman, director of Addiction Consultation Service at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Young people are consuming cannabis at two times the rate as their parents did,” Forman says.

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Parks stresses that a decrease in alcohol use among younger adults doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re being healthier than older generations; that is, they may be using cannabis in place of alcohol, or taking up other unhealthy habits. “I would want to screen them for other compulsive or addictive behaviors they might be vulnerable to before cheering just yet,” she says. “They still face all the typical developmental challenges of adolescence and young adulthood.”

Still, experts say there are a few tips older adults should follow when it comes to alcohol.

While there are plenty of young adults who drink, many are having less alcohol than previous generations. Dick points out that when young adults drink alcohol, they’re being more intentional about it. That may mean having a glass of Champagne during a special celebration or enjoying a specialty cocktail during a birthday dinner, as opposed to meeting at a bar and making drinking the main activity for the evening.

Younger people are “finding other ways to socialize that don’t center on alcohol,” Dick adds. “The internet has made it easier to find and connect with people who share interests and hobbies. This means there are more social outlets than simply going to a bar to socialize and meet people.”

Forman says he’s seen a shift in his patients talking about reactions they receive when they avoid alcohol in social situations. “In the past, if a young woman went to a social event and they chose not to drink, they would get comments like, ‘Oh you must be expecting’ or ‘You must be in recovery,’” he says. With more people choosing not to drink, “that never happens now,” he says.

Experts stress that having a glass of wine or cocktail in moderation doesn’t make you a bad person. But if you regularly have too much to drink, you may behave in a way you’ll regret. “Younger generations are being more intentional about making choices that align with their values, with what is ultimately important to them long-term,” Dick says. “In many cases, alcohol doesn’t fit with that value system.”

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Between August 2021 and August 2022, sales of so-called mocktails and non-alcoholic drinks in the U.S. grew nearly 21%, according to Nielsen. The global non-alcoholic beer market also grew nearly 20% during that time. “Bars are catching on and coming up with interesting mocktail menus, so that you can try fun new drinks that don’t contain alcohol,” Dick says. Forman agrees: “Our culture has embraced non-alcoholic options.”

If you’re interested in cutting back on alcohol use but aren’t sure how, Forman suggests talking to your primary care physician. “That’s a great place to start,” he says.

Originally published on Yahoo!life May 31, 2024 edition





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