By Stacy Nickz
The Coloroadoan

Peer pressure.
Media influence.

A culture of alcohol: What fuels teen drinkingNormal teenage rebellion. The reasons young people drink — some to their deaths — are almost as elusive as ways to stop it. More than 7 million children ages 12 to 17 admitted drinking at least once last year, and 2.7 million of those said they drank at least once that month.

Last year, six Colorado college students, including two at CSU, died after nights of drinking.

In a special series, the Coloradoan looks at the issues, including how much young people are drinking, where underage drinkers are getting alcohol and what schools and parents are doing to stop it. The results are sobering.

The real motivations

Teens say they drink for a variety of reasons. Whether peer pressure is among them depends on your definition of peer pressure.

“The whole peer pressure thing — I think it’s kind of stupid. I’ve never witnessed peer pressure from anyone,” said Emily, a 17-year-old student at Fort Collins High School. “It’s more of a personal choice. I think parents think that we can’t make our own decisions — that our friends talk us into drinking.”

Teens usually understand “peer pressure” to mean someone urging them to drink or chiding them for not drinking.

But if you think of “peer pressure” as drinking because friends do, then peer pressure appears to play a larger role in determining behavior.

Of the nearly two dozen local high school students interviewed for this report, more than half reported that they and most or all of their friends drink.

Those students also were more likely to believe that a greater percentage of high school students drink regularly than really do.

“People say they can withstand peer pressure. But if all your friends (drink), you are more likely to do it,” said Margaret Worley, a 17-year-old student at Poudre High School, who said she doesn’t drink.

And in a culture where many movies, television shows and music videos make teen partying out to be cool, some students and adults say the wrong message is being sent.

The real numbers

Regardless of what Hollywood and the media portrays and many local teens believe, statistics show that most young people don’t drink.

There is a myth that “everyone” is drinking, said Poudre School District Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator Jim Campain.

But according to the 2003 Colorado Youth Survey, 78 percent of Poudre School District eighth-grade students reported not using alcohol during the previous 30 days. But it’s the remaining 22 percent who make the headlines. That’s because no matter how law-abiding most teens are, almost one in four eighth-graders drinks.

Not surprisingly, more students drink the older they get.

In the same survey, 42 percent of 10th graders admitted drinking alcohol within the 30 days prior to the survey. And more than half — 55 percent — of high school seniors reported the same.

But local high school students interviewed who reported drinking regularly were more likely to believe nearly all seniors drink.

One local high school senior who said he drank at least once every other week thought as many as 95 percent of seniors would drink if the opportunity presented itself.

In contrast, those who said they don’t drink generally estimate the percentage of high school drinkers to be 40 to 60 percent.

The numbers aren’t as bad as Diane Vox feared, but not as comforting as the Fort Collins mother of two junior high school students had hoped for, either.

“Where are they getting it from?” Vox wondered aloud. “Where are their parents?”

Sometimes it’s the parents providing the alcohol.

Teens who admitted drinking said they had their first unsupervised, alcoholic drink when they were 13 to 15 years old. Their reasons varied from curiosity to wanting to be part of the crowd to the age-old line, “because I wasn’t supposed to.”

The real dangers

As teens get older, feelings of invincibility seem to increase as their sense of moderation decreases.

On Sept. 4, Samantha Spady, 19, drank the equivalent of 30 to 40 drinks of beer and vodka at various parties, officials said. Friends left her to sleep it off in an unused room in the Sigma Pi fraternity house. The CSU sophomore was found dead the next day with a 0.436 blood-alcohol content level.

In 2003, more than 1,400 U.S. college-age students died from alcohol related causes, including alcohol poisoning and drunken driving accidents, according to the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

There also were 500,000 injuries, 600,000 assaults and 2.1 million drunken driving accidents recorded in association with alcohol abuse. More than 10 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 reported binge drinking at least once during the previous month, according to the 2003 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting. And according to the Alcohol Policies Project, nearly one in five teenagers has experienced “blackouts,” after which he or she could not remember what happened the previous evening.

Eric, a 16-year-old Fort Collins teen, took his first drink at 10, attended his first alcohol party at 12, and had dropped out of school and into rehab by 15.

As of January, he has been sober four months and, after alcohol classes mandated by the courts, is looking forward to going back to school in September.

“It kind of screwed me all up,” Eric said. “I got a lot of tickets and got in trouble with the law a lot.”

The real solutions

Experts say there is no one cure-all to the problem of underage drinking, but positive influences are key.

That includes having parents involved in their children’s social lives, schools involved in educating students about the impact alcohol can have on their health and overall quality of life, community members setting positive role models and the youths getting involved in positive activities.

Parents need to set clear boundaries, said Kurtis Royer, mental-health specialist with Connections, a partnership between the Health District of Northern Larimer County and Larimer Center for Mental Health, and they need to talk about responsible alcohol use with their children. But allowing a minor to drink alcohol is not responsible, he said.

When parents teach kids about rules and boundaries in general, they shouldn’t just address the alcohol issue, Royer said. Teaching children about responsibilities and setting examples for making healthy decisions and living a healthy lifestyle are the best lessons.

But parents can lead their children only so far, and then it’s up to the kids to make responsible choices, said Candy Wirt, founder of the Safe Homes program, which provides parents with a list of other parents who don’t provide alcohol to minors or allow underage drinking in their homes.

Every night before her two teenage daughters leave the house, Wirt reminds them to make wise choices. The rest is up to them.

“Everyone has choices in life, and you can only lead your children so far,” she said.

Coloradoan reporters Pat Ferrier, Kelli Lackett and Courtney Lingle contributed to this report.

Originally published Feb. 6, 2005