EurekAlert tossed up a press release from the University of Minnesota yesterday with the provocative title: “U of Minn researchers find primary alcohol prevention programs are needed for ‘tweens’” and the even more eye-popping subtitle “Study recommends that prevention programs occur as early as third grade.” What, you may ask, is the problem this is intended to solve?
The study found that adolescents who already use alcohol are less receptive to prevention programs aimed at all students. Intervening at earlier ages, specifically between third and fifth grade, would allow for truly universal anti-alcohol messages that would also provide support for high-risk students.
“Children who use alcohol in sixth grade respond differently to messages about alcohol use than those have not used alcohol,” said Keryn Pasch, M.P.H., Ph.D., University of Minnesota School of Public Health and first author of the study. “By sixth grade it’s too late; we’ll miss many of the at-risk kids.”
It’s not clear to me, though, that this is the right solution to the problem. That is, if “adolescents who already use alcohol are less receptive to prevention programs aimed at all students,” it seems like the problem might be with the prevention programs, rather than an indication that the intervention is coming too late.
I can’t say that I’m up on the very latest in alcohol prevention programs, but the stuff I remember seeing as late as the mid-90’s definitely seemed susceptible to the “Reefer Madness” problem. That is, the message was, basically “If you use alcohol, you will inevitably and immediately wreck your life.” Presented with any of the ample evidence that alcohol is not, in fact, cyanide– adults who drink without problems, older students who drink without spectacular ill effects, trying alcohol without dropping dead instantly– students then write the entire program off as a giant pile of crap. They then end up ignoring advice about more sensible and responsible use of alcohol, and wind up doing more damage to themselves than they might’ve without the program.
It’s possible that alcohol prevention programs have become substantially more sophisticated since the last stuff that I saw (I haven’t seen what the Student Life people here use). The anti-drug ads I see on tv have certainly gotten worlds better than what I remember as a kid– the “anti-drug” spots are actually pretty good, in a slightly corny way. The emphasis isn’t on trying to scare kids with the negative consequences of drug use, but rather on the more positive things they could be doing rather than doing drugs.
The fact that the programs they’re talking about don’t work on kids who have already tried alcohol, though, makes me wonder if it’s not still a scare-based program at the core. In which case, it’s not clear to me that starting to scare the students at earlier ages is really a useful solution.