Teen girls drink like the rest of us – to forget
It’s official, Britain’s teenage girls are the biggest binge drinkers in Europe. It’s not new research but the fact that this evidence has been included in the Department of Health’s submission to the House of Commons Health Select Committee inquiry shows that it is still a problem and that politicians are still worried about it.
There are two issues here and they are very different. The first is that the UK has a problem with underage drinking compared to the rest of Europe. And the second is that girls in the UK binge drink (that is drink a lot in a single session) more than boys. No doubt the health community is focused on underage drinking in general but the gender angle is also important.
The latest survey by Girlguiding UK shows that more than half (56 per cent) of 16- to 18-year-old girls think that “getting drunk with friends is fun”. But almost a third (31 per cent) say that they often drink more than they’d planned because their friends are drinking too.
It’s tough being a teenage girl. Twice as many girls suffer anxiety and depression during their teenage years than boys. So is it any wonder then that they drink to excess more often than boys? Are they not just mistreating alcohol in the same way that adults do? They drink to forget. More than one in ten (13 per cent) of 16- to 18-year-old girls say that ‘a good night out is one where you can’t remember anything the next day’.
But while it is tough being a teenage girl, across the board, girls do better in exams and make a more successful transition to adulthood than boys do. Girls are more likely to get jobs and generally earn more than young men, before they suffer the motherhood penalty of parenthood. Other than teen pregnancy, which has an obviously disproportional impact on their life chances compared to boys, teenage girls do better than boys overall.
There are just a few exceptions. Teenage girls eat less healthily than boys (when measured by five-a-day fruit and veg) and they also get much less exercise.
Polling of school children and focus groups with schools girls that I worked on for the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation shows that half of girls are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE. School PE is better than it used to be but it still doesn’t give girls the choice of activity they say they want. Activity levels in early primary schools are actually higher for girls than they are for boys but around the transition to secondary schools the gender gap starts to open up.
Considering this survey evidence together shows that drinking, like sport, is a social activity. The impact of the peer group is very powerful for girls both in terms of giving up PE and taking up binge drinking. While sport gets less appealing, drinking gets more appealing but during the same period, teenage girls’ self-esteem dramatically declines, relative to boys.
The binge drinking gender gap highlighted by the Department for Health is hiding a more significant gender gap in teenage self-esteem.alcohol, binge drinking, health, teenage girls
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