Teenage Alcohol Use and Educational Attainment

A few days ago I wrote about the links between substance misuse and other risky behaviours and educational outcomes pointing to US research which suggests that the correlations are clear even if the causation isn’t.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be able to attend a conference organised by the Cohort and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources programme about alcohol use by young people and young adults.

As the organiser’s name suggests the focus was on what some of the longitudinal data tells about the outcomes for young people who use alcohol.

I’m sure that CLOSER will share all the presentations but I want to focus on a paper that formed the basis of the first presentation, by Dr Jeremy Staff of Penn State University, who looked at what we can learn about the educational outcomes of young people who use alcohol.

Dr Staff and his fellow authors have used a British longitudinal study,  the National Child Development Study (NCDS), which follows the outcomes of a large (17,000) group of people who were all born in 1958.  When it came to the data in this study there were respondents that hadn’t recorded their alcohol use at age 16, their gender, or father’s occupation, which meant that they worked with a sample of just over 9,100 people, 51% of whom were men.

As they were trying to work out if alcohol use at age 16 had affected educational outcomes for this big group the first task was to define what they thought of as heavy drinking.  They chose to define this as “females who had consumed four or more units of alcohol in the past week and males who had consumed five or more units of alcohol in the past week.”

As was pointed out in the question and answer session after yesterday’s presentation this doesn’t automatically equate with what you or I might describe as a heavy drinker.  In the paper the authors argue that they were trying to find those who may have binged:

Females who consumed three or fewer drinks and males who consumed four or fewer drinks were considered lower risk because they could not have engaged in what is defined as a heavy episodic drinking event during that week.

For this cohort what it meant was that the researchers were looking at 13% of females and 25% of males who had drunk more than their definition of heavy drinking.

Looking at the educational outcomes for these young people at the age of 42 and taking into account as many of the confounding factors as the data set would allow (such as their previous educational achievement) the authors conclude:

male heavy drinking in adolescence has a negative effect on the receipt of post secondary qualifications by age 42, independent of childhood risk factors correlated with both heavy drinking and school achievement. In particular, males from working-class families were the most impacted by heavy alcohol use in adolescence. In contrast, heavy alcohol use had little effect on female educational attainment.

They say that heavy drinking males from working-class backgrounds were approximately 25% less likely to get a degree, compared to middle-class heavy drinking males where the likelihood of getting a degree was reduced by about 10%.

The authors acknowledge some of the limitations of the data set – for example it doesn’t tell us if the drinking that was recorded was either higher or lower than in others weeks of that year, and it doesn’t give us whether drinking had begun earlier in their lives.

But it does seem to offer compelling evidence that drinking during adolescence can have long term outcomes, particularly it seems for working class boys.

Read the whole paper here: Teenage Alcohol Use and Educational Attainment.

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