Page last updated: August 23, 2013
US study - Types of alcohol experience from childhood to adolescence

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh collected data from children in one Pennsylvania county each year from ages 8 and a half through 18. They examined the development of alcohol involvement of 452 children. The ages at which children first sipped or tasted alcohol, drank, had three or more drinks in a row, had five or more drinks in a row, were drunk, or had alcohol problems were recorded. The researchers state that sipping and three or more drinks per occasion have been understudied to date.

From age 8.5 to 12.5 years, there were two latent classes: abstainers and sippers. The percentage of sippers increased to 67% by age 12.5 years. From ages 13.0 to 18.0, the research identified three latent classes: abstainers, sippers/light drinkers, and drinkers with drunkenness. At ages 13.5–15.5 years, drinkers in the latter class reported drunkenness with just three to four drinks per occasion. By age 18 years, sippers/light drinkers comprised 55% of the sample and drinkers with drunkenness comprised 38%.

John Donovan, associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburg said that other research has identified a link between early-onset drinking and associated behaviours such as binge drinking, marijuana use, delinquency, precocious sexual behaviour, drinking and driving in adolescence, and substance use disorder.

The study also highlighted racial differences among the children’s early drinking habits. For instance, only 18% of 8.5-year-old Black children sipped alcohol compared with 44% of White children. And at age 11, 36 percent of Black children were light drinkers compared with 57 percent of White children.

“Some researchers attribute this to several factors, including stronger parental disapproval of teen drinking in African-American families, the lower response of African-American teens to peer pressure, and the greater influence of religiosity in African-American families,” Donovan explained.

The authors conclude that childhood experience with alcohol was surprisingly widespread. Sipping or tasting alcohol was common by age 12 years. A quarter of the sample drank before age 15 years.

Source: Types of Alcohol Use Experience From Childhood Through Adolescence. John E. Donovan, Donovan JE, Molina BSG. Journal of Adolescent Health, published online 11 June 2013.

All text and images © 2003 Alcohol In Moderation.