Demos – Feeling the effects

Demos have been thinking about the impact that parenting can have on young people’s drinking and have published a report, Feeling the Effects, which argues for what they call ‘tough love’.

The report makes the argument that:

good parenting in general may be the best and most effective approach to minimise hazardous drinking levels in society in the long term.

Demos suggest:

Many parents think their drinking has little or no impact on their families, convincing themselves that if they feed and clean their children and make sure they attend school, they have fulfilled their most important parenting duties.

This follows a similar line of argument put forward by the 4 Children report that parents’ drinking is doing more harm than they may acknowledge.

The research that Demos have carried out includes a quantitative analysis of the British Cohort Study which follows a large group of people who were born in 1970, and qualitative work with 50 families that are or have sought support from specialist services as a result of parental drinking.

The report has tried to categorise parents into four different types of parenting style:

  • disengaged: low discipline and low affection
  • laissez-faire: low discipline and high affection
  • authoritarian: high discipline and low affection
  • ‘tough love’: high discipline and high love

If you swap ‘tough love’ for authoritative parenting, then the characterisation will be familiar to many academic studies of  parenting and unsurprisingly it is that style of parenting which is the ideal.

Demos describe their main findings as:

  • Parents who drink ‘always’ are significantly less likely to be ‘tough love’ parents
  • Mothers who drink ‘always’ are more likely to have children who drink at hazardous levels in adulthood

This and the qualitative research leads them to make a number of policy recommendations.  Included in these are some that we will want to be aware of, in particular what they say about information campaigns.

the majority of adverts and information awareness campaigns focus on units consumed and the harms to the drinkers themselves rather than providing advice to those responsible for children. With the exception of the charity Drinkaware, very few appear to offer direct advice to parents, not only about their children’s alcohol consumption, but also about the impact of their own drinking and parenting style.

They argue that the alcohol industry should be providing some of this advice and that the Public Health Responsibility Deal may be the way forward on this.  They also call for the advertising agencies that have worked on behaviour change campaigns – including Drinkaware – should be working with the government’s Behaviour Change Unit.

Drinkaware PostersThis causes me some concern.

A recent piece of research that I came across, and which will be published in a peer reviewed journal shortly, showed that one of Drinkaware’s recent campaign’s is likely to increase drinking rather than reduce it (right).  This is unfortunately not the first time that a ‘boomerang’ effect has been seen from public health campaigning.

What the poster makes clear is that there are ways of testing the effects of media campaigns at relatively low cost, but I’ve yet to come across an advertising agency that does the sort of testing that Tony Moss and his colleagues carried out.

Talking about early intervention they say that their research suggests:

if parents showed affection and warmth to their children in early years those children were less likely to grow up to drink at ‘hazardous’ levels as teenagers and adults.

They also call for better family interventions for those families where alcohol is an issue.  Neither of these recommendations are controversial, but perhaps because of the focus of the report what seems missing to me is a wider preventative strategy that recognises that there are other settings in which a life-course approach could be effective.

So no mention of the support that children can get from schools or youth clubs, no mention of the role of the wider family – kinship care isn’t mentioned and the only mention of grandparents is in the context of their alcohol problems.  This despite them finding:

The drinking behaviour of the teen’s girlfriend or boyfriend has the strongest impact on the teen’s likelihood of being a binge drinker.

There is more to be got from the report but it’s limitations are, I hope, clear.

The other thing to note is that the research was paid for by SAB Miller, and while Demos are clear this did not influence the report in any way it leaves Demos open to attack, particularly as they seem to be ambivalent about environmental interventions such as Minimum Unit Pricing.

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