Friday, 17 June 2011

Do parents drive their children to drink?

The Today programme this morning was excitedly trumpeting the headline finding from a Rowntree survey on teenage drinking. Children who see their parents drunk, we were told, "are twice as likely to get drunk themselves."

The audience was invited to conclude that there was a causal relationship between these two facts: teenagers drinking heavily because they see their parents drinking heavily. But there are at least three reasons why this might not be so.

1) There is a strong genetic component in alcoholism. An alcoholic is likely to have had at least one alcoholic parent, whether or not the parent got drunk in front of them as a child. There is nothing to suggest that the survey compensated for heredity. In fact, the words "genetic" and "heredity" occur not once in the full report.

2) Another factor in teenage drinking claimed by Rowntree was "poor parental supervision" - allowing children to stay out all night, not knowing where or with whom they are hanging out, not exerting discipline. This is plausible, not because of the parenting itself, but because inadequately supervised teenagers are more likely to be hanging out with the wrong crowd. Then again, they might be hanging out with a good crowd, in which place the lack of parental supervision would be less damaging.

Studies tend to show that peer pressure at least as significant as parental influence when it comes to drinking. But such research very rarely takes genetic factors into account. So while it is known that peer groups do influence teenage behaviour very strongly, what proportion of parental influence is down to their example rather than their genes has yet to be adequately determined.

3) Most importantly, the survey implies that it is the sight of a parent drinking that encourages the child to drink. There is no evidence for this whatever. Even factoring out the genetic influence, it's obvious (or should be) that if a parent is in the habit of getting drunk in front of the kids there are likely to be other problems in the family: inadequate parenting (see above), abuse, a chaotic private life, depression or simple misery. All things that might well lead a child to seek solace with a group of similarly disaffected peers who will probably end up drinking (and smoking, having sex, committing criminal damage and all the rest of it).

The Rowntree survey made no attempt whatever to consider these other factors, preferring to draw a simplistic causal link between seeing and doing. And of course the media, with its predictable "blame the parents" agenda, lapped it up.