As if parents aren’t worried enough about what their teenagers are doing on Saturday nights, a new study reveals that binge drinking is common among high school seniors, with some knocking back 15 or more alcoholic drinks in a row.
Earlier studies on binge drinking — commonly defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting — have looked mainly at college students. But none had examined the behavior in high schoolers.
Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 16,000 high school seniors from 2005 to 2011. They found that about 1 in 5 students reported having a binge-drinking episode in the past two weeks. Among that group, half had guzzled 10 or more drinks, and one quarter had 15 or more drinks.
The study also revealed that teen binge drinking declined significantly between 2005 and 2011. But rates of extreme binge drinking — downing 10 or more drinks in a row --- have barely budged. That could explain why alcohol-related emergency room visits among teens are on the rise, even though adolescent drinking has decreased.
“The rates are alarming when you think of a class of 30 students, that several kids in the class will be drinking at very dangerous levels,” said study leader Megan Patrick, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan. “That’s a big cause for concern.”
Patrick and her colleagues also found that boys were more likely than girls to binge drink, as were whites compared to blacks. Students who spent more nights out with their friends and reported more of their friends getting drunk were also more inclined to binge drink. So were students with college-educated parents, although they were less likely to consume 15 or more drinks than students whose parents didn’t attend college.
The reasons for these differences are unclear, said Patrick, who published the results online Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. “We need to do more research,” she said.
In the meantime, she hopes the findings will raise awareness of teen binge drinking and promote efforts to curb the dangerous practice.
For that to happen, parents and health providers “should be vigilant” about discussing the risks of heavy drinking with adolescents, even those who seem unlikely to binge, said Ralph Hingson, an epidemiologist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The new findings are also “a wake-up call” for other national surveys to begin asking about extreme binge drinking, added Hingson, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. Most surveys simply ask how often teens have met the five-drink threshold.
“We should have questions about very heavy levels of drinking,” he said. “Unless we start doing that, we’re not going to figure out how to reduce very high levels of consumption.”
The researchers noted that one limitation of the study is that participants may have had trouble remembering exactly how many drinks they had, especially if they consumed 10 or more. But that makes the numbers more concerning, since people tend to underestimate how much they drink, Hingson said.
“If people say they’re consuming that much, I think that’s very troubling in itself,” he said.