How many 11-year-olds can possibly be drinking alcohol in the UK for it to warrant costly scientific scrutiny?
A lot, according to recent research. In a study titled What Influences 11-year-olds to Drink? published BMC Public Health, researchers looked at a sample of 10,498 British 11-year-olds and found that 13.6 percent (or roughly one out of seven) of them self-reported drinking "more than a few sips" of alcohol.
The main factor seems to be environment—but for a behavior as complex as drinking, the causes are obviously more subtle and interrelated and go well beyond the child's immediate environment.
"Our results suggest that 11-year-olds' perceptions of risk, their expectancies towards alcohol and relationships with their families were independently related to the likelihood of drinking," the researchers concluded.
Specifically, they found that children whose mothers (more so than fathers) drank were twice as likely to have indulged in alcohol, while those whose friends drank were a whopping five times more likely to have tried it.
Despite the large sample size, researchers were also quick to point out the shortcomings of their study, namely its lack of depth and inability to measure just how much alcohol was consumed by each respondent. The report notes: "Our study was not able to examine contexts around drinking occasions among 11-year-olds: Who do they drink with? Where, when and what do they drink? How do they acquire alcohol and what are the broader social norms around drinking?"
Scientists studying the problem aren't hiding the fact that there remain a lot of unanswered questions about adolescent drinking—nor are they hesitating to use surreptitious methods to answer those questions.