Chances are the only thing you remember about your first swig of alcohol is how bad the stuff tasted. What you didn't know is the person who gave you that first drink and when you had it says a lot about your predisposition to imbibe later in life.
A national study by a University of Iowa-led team has found that adolescents who get their first drink from a friend are more likely to drink sooner in life, which past studies show makes them more prone to abusing alcohol when they get older. The finding is designed to help specialists predict when adolescents are likely to first consume alcohol, with the aim of heading off problem drinking at the pass.
"When you start drinking, even with kids who come from alcoholic families, they don't get their first drinks from their family," says Samuel Kuperman, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the UI. "They get their first drinks from their friends. They have to be able to get it. If they have friends who have alcohol, then it's easier for them to have that first drink."
The basis for the study, published this month in the journal Pediatrics, is compelling: One-third of eighth graders in the United States report they've tried alcohol, according to a 2011 study of 20,000 teenagers conducted by the University of Michigan and funded by the National Institutes of Health. By 10th grade, more than half say they've had a first drink, and that percentage shoots to 70 percent by their senior year.
"There's something driving kids to drink," explains Kuperman, corresponding author on the paper. "Maybe it's the coolness factor or some mystique about it. So, we're trying to educate kids about the risks associated with drinking and give them alternatives."
Kuperman and his team built their formula from two longstanding measures of adolescent drinking behavior-the Semi-Structured Assessment for the Genetics and Alcoholism and the Achenbach Youth Self Report. From those measures of nearly two-dozen variables and a review of the literature, the UI-led team found five to be the most important predictors: two separate measures of disruptive behavior, a family history of alcohol dependence, a measure of poor social skills, and whether most best friends drink alcohol.
The researchers then looked at how the five variables worked in concert. Surprisingly, a best friend who drank and had access to alcohol was the most important predictor. In fact, adolescents whose best friend used alcohol were twice as likely to have a first drink, the researchers found. Moreover, if considered independently of the other variables, teenagers whose best friends drank are three times as likely to begin drinking themselves, the study found, underscoring the sway that friends have in adolescents' drinking behavior.