Drinking Alcohol to Defy Adult Authority

Most alcohol abuse education is ineffective and occasionally even counter-productive. It's important that we effectively teach young people about the dangers of alcohol abuse and prepare them to drink safely, if they choose to drink, when they become of legal drinking age.

We have proof about what doesn't work. Although they continue to be routinely used, "scare" tactics are very ineffective. Teaching that alcohol is a poison, that parents who enjoy an alcoholic drink are drug users, that alcohol is a gateway substance leading to the use of hard drugs, and showing pictures of cirrhotic livers have never been effective. They weren't when used by temperance activists and they aren't when used by teachers today.

Very young students tend to believe scare messages at first but later realize that such teachings are inconsistent with their own observations and experiences. This destroys the credibility of subsequent alcohol abuse education and those who provide it.

It's clear that simply teaching abstinence is ineffective; most young people drink. However, we can continue to teach them abstinence while at the same time teaching them how those age 21 and above can reduce risks that can be associated with alcohol consumption. This prepares them for adulthood while at the same time providing potentially life-saving information for those who choose to drink before age 21.

Among many other things, we can teach them

  • that standard drinks of beer, wine and whiskey or distilled spirits all contain equivalent amounts of alcohol,
  • that women, even of the same weight as men, are intoxicated at lower levels of alcohol consumption,
  • that eating before and/or while drinking reduces the rate at which BAC rises,
  • that wise drinkers pace their drinks and how to do so effectively,
  • to recognize common but often dangerous alcohol myths,
  • to avoid punches and other drinks of uncertain levels of alcohol content, and
  • to recognize medical emergenices that can result from excessive drinking and how to provide immediate assistance.

Young people resent prohibitions against sharing privileges enjoyed by adults and adults age 18-20 especially resent being treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against. By drinking alcohol, especially in excess, they can rebel against their demeaned status.

Alcohol educators need to establish their credibility in order to be effective. Dr. Rodney Skager of the University of California at Los Angeles emphasizes that "youth education on the subject is more likely to be effective under a harm minimization rather than abstinence-only philosophy. The former inevitably includes more credible information."


  • Skager, Rodney. Having Fun and Defying Adults: Speculations on Why Most Young People Ignore Negative Information on the Dangers of Drinking Alcohol, Addiction, 2009, 104(4), 576-577.