Engaging young people in advocacy, education & prevention
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A Simpler Time

August 31, 2009 6:55 pm Published by Comments Off on A Simpler Time

in the good old days photo

In the workshops that Straight Up conducts in local schools, we are being told that, more and more, kids are being introduced to and starting to experiment with alcohol at the unbelievable ages of 11-13 years old. This news shocked me when I first heard it, but now has become the norm.

When I was 11, the last thing on my mind was drinking. It was more focused on hanging out with my friends, playing basketball and tennis, and riding bikes. This is not to say that I never got into trouble, or that I was a model kid – far from it. And, possibly my lack of vices at that age might also be attributed to the fact that I was never part of the “popular” crowd, but nevertheless, my friends and I shared common interests and they never included alcohol.

At the risk of sounding like an “old fogey” that now shouts “hey you kids, get off of my lawn,” the world was different then, and it’s interesting to see the comparison. Laws were more lenient in the 1970s when it came to drinking and driving, for example. I can remember a time when I saw labels that resembled Coke or Pepsi that you could peel off and stick to your beer cans to make it look like it was soda that you were drinking while behind the wheel. These labels were available in regular retail stores! Beer and hard alcohol was a regular product in my home growing up, and it was always on the grocery list.

But when I think back on all of these memories, there is one constant feeling that always goes along with them, and that is that I always viewed these things as “distinctly adult.” I always felt that these were products that I would buy, or issues I would deal with later in life – when I was older. There was never a feeling that I wanted to “get a head start” on these things. Maybe it was my upbringing (which I’m sure played a part), maybe it was partially my “geekdom” at that age, but it sure seems that the pressures on kids today are much greater, and the want to “fit in” with their friends who drink are coming at a much earlier age. It’s very sad.

The advertising has shifted as well. Not only on television, but with the advent of the Internet and the easy access to it, kids these days (listen to me saying “kids these days…” Wow. I feel like I’m aging 20 years even as I write this…) are being bombarded with the drinking culture and alcohol advertising. Scanning the Internet recently, I found a wide variety of sites that offer descriptions of drinking games complete with “how to” instructions, equipment needed, and game rules; and even sites that sell supplies for these games. One site listed the games in alphabetical order and had a total of 104 games painstakingly described. Nowhere on this site were visitors asked to type in their age.

Astounding! This was the type of stuff that might have been found in a book in my home growing up and kept out of sight (or at least out of reach) with the hard alcohol in my parents’ liquor cabinet. Nowadays, it’s easily accessible to any kid who can peck at a computer keyboard.

High school kids that participate in the Straight Up workshops have frequently stated that middle school is where they were introduced to alcohol and the statistics are supporting that. According to the Marin Institute, every day, on average, 11, 318 American kids between the age of 12 and 20 try alcohol for the first time. Another study cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that, “according to a longitudinal study of students in three states, middle school students were almost three times more likely to use alcohol if they had previously used alcohol in elementary school.Do you need to read that again? The fact that the study even tracked kids using alcohol in elementary school is flabbergasting. My biggest concern in second grade was getting to the lunch line quickly so that I could wolf down my lunch and get to recess before all the good Kickball balls were gone.

A simpler time, not without its own pressures, but one that makes me frightened for the kids of this day and age.

Shawn McMaster is a project coordinator for Straight Up Ventura County.
Photo: from the good old days by nuanc