Earlier this year, a report by the World Health Organisation found that young people in the UK are among the heaviest binge drinkers in the world. The report states that one in five UK teenagers binge drink once a week. In England alone, 36 young people are admitted into A&E every day for alcohol-related injuries. These figures rise considerably during the school holidays.
However, after ten years of visiting independent schools across the UK and talking to hundreds of pupils of all ages, I am surprised the figures aren’t higher.
For many young people, binge drinking is a rite of passage. It provides instant friends, confidence, acceptance, fun and escapism. Or so it feels at the time. For some, though, it can also mean an unplanned pregnancy, STDs, a black eye, a broken arm or alcohol poisoning. For a few, it’s worse. But what’s most frightening is how common these experiences are among many of the pupils I talk to.
Binge drinking is a complex, emotive and uncomfortable subject. It polarises opinion. Age, background, preconceptions and religious beliefs all determine how we feel about binge drinking. Social and psychological factors play a huge part in influencing young people’s drinking patterns. To really engage young people in this complex issue, we need to have some uncomfortable conversations – and we all need to listen to each other.
The explosion of social media presents another new challenge for schools and parents. This unpredictable medium has taken on a life of its own with little or no effective regulatory control. Young people create and build their identities online. They celebrate, Like and unlike each other’s lifestyles 24/7. Young people are left vulnerable and exposed to the short- and long-term impact of sharing their nights of excess with a photo, a tweet, a post or a film. All of which are liked, shared and discussed at the touch of a button – by anyone.
The power and influence of social media was thrown into sharp focus earlier this year with the birth of the global online drinking game NekNominate, where binge drinking was championed by young people around the world. Sadly, five young people in the UK who took part in the challenge died. The controversy and tragedy which followed saw politicians calling for schools to play a bigger role in helping their pupils to tackle peer pressure.
As reported by the University of Stirling in their pioneering report published last year, social networking websites make it easier for young people to engage with alcohol brands through peer-peer communication, such as joining fan clubs and forwarding and sharing viral videos. The report also found that the greater the exposure of young people to online advertising of alcohol, the more likely they are to binge drink.
However, social media is just one factor that has contributed to cultural change in young peoples’ attitudes towards binge drinking. Other factors include increased affordability, changing drinking habits, ‘designer’ drinks aimed at the youth market, targeted marketing campaigns selling a lifestyle, and 24-hour media.
Tackling and challenging young people’s attitudes and behaviour towards binge drinking can only be addressed through engagement, education and talking openly about responsible drinking.
The good news is that most independent schools recognise that they can’t address and fix this issue on their own. There isn’t a simple solution. There’s no quick fix. The solution requires investment, commitment and a clear understanding of the problem. Parental and pupil engagement and support from the local community are also critical.
Schools reluctantly acknowledge that some pupils are going to drink too much and that, in a few cases, they are going to drink dangerously. Many schools have evolved from a blanket zero-tolerance policy, recognising that telling young people not to drink or preaching about the dangers of drinking too much doesn’t work. However, what does work is allowing young people opportunities to freely discuss their views, opinions and experiences. As part of their PHSE curriculum schools are developing tailored programmes to engage with and inform pupils about binge drinking and, more importantly, the steps that they need to take in an emergency.
NHS reports state that too many young people die as a result of alcohol poisoning because there is an avoidable delay in calling for help. Many pupils I talk to say that, in a situation like this, they panic or are too scared to call for help. Often they believe an unconscious friend can simply ‘sleep it off’.
Schools have made great progress in raising awareness of the dangers of binge drinking; recruiting outside councillors, developing pastoral care, commissioning PHSE speakers and delivering tailored classroom activities. But the problem is still very real. It is evolving and presenting new challenges.
Critics have argued that raising awareness about alcohol through education enhances knowledge and modifies attitudes: however, the impact often dissipates after a few weeks. Raising awareness just isn’t enough anymore. Schools need to develop a bold, fresh approach to tackling pupils’ attitudes towards binge drinking.
The most successful education programmes in effecting behavioural change are tailored to meet the needs of the pupils and the culture of the school. They are led by senior management and supported and championed throughout the school by staff, pupils and parents.
St Edmunds, Canterbury is an example of a school that has embraced an innovative, whole-school approach. Deputy Head, Ed O’Connor says, “Communicating effectively with young people on this subject is a real challenge for schools. We need to inform and educate our pupils to manage the risks in an effective manner: fire-fighting problems reactively only addresses the symptoms of a deeply ingrained and complex issue.
“Independent schools have some flexibility to take a lead here. We are developing a bespoke programme of activities which we are hoping to roll out across year groups. These activities will be delivered in part through academic subjects and incorporate peer-to-peer collaboration, staff and parental engagement.”
Designing and delivering tailored programmes is a balancing act. It involves investment, commitment, engagement, risk management, collaboration and leadership. It requires consistency, energy and determination. Schools, parents and pupils all have a part to play in effecting change. Schools have come a long way in successfully raising awareness of the problem. Now it’s time for engagement, collaboration, innovation and action.
CharlieB is founder of A Word of Warning