In the UK you are not allowed to buy alcohol until you are 18, although you are allowed to drink with a meal in licensed premises from the age of 16, if an adult buys it (you can buy your own with a meal in Scotland at 16). Parents are allowed to give their children small amounts of alcohol at home but, in the UK, it is illegal to give any alcohol to a child under 5 years old. (See Wikipedia for a comparison of alcohol age limits throughout the world). Alcohol is a big part of mainstream British culture and most young people grow up in households where their parents drink alcohol and where there is a ready supply in the house.
Among the young people we talked to, those who had not started drinking alcohol until they were 16 or 17 described themselves as ‘late starters’. At the other end of the scale, Mary Ann was aware that it was highly unusual that her father had bought her an alcopop when she was aged only 10 years. Somewhere between 14 and 16 was seen as an unremarkable age to start drinking with friends.
What is very striking is how often the first experience of getting drunk was quite carefully planned. Fourteen or 15 year olds usually knew that they would be unlikely to be able to buy their own alcohol so they found other ways to get hold of it: older brothers and sisters were sometimes persuaded to buy alcohol for them.
The ‘Challenge 21’ and ‘Challenge 25’ initiatives that require shop and bar keepers to ask for proof of age for anyone who they think looks less than 21 (or 25) may be having some impact – young people said it was getting more difficult to buy alcohol. But there were many other ways to get hold of it.
Another part of the planning involved (and there is no nice way to put this!) is lying to their parents. Girls would tell their parents they were having a sleep over at a friend’s house.
Although alcohol was an unremarkable part of many teenagers’ lives, some were particular about when and in what circumstances they would drink and knew that their parents did not approve of drinking in public. Emily and Hayley said that when they were in their mid teens their parents preferred them to invite their friends home to have a drink where they were safe. The image of young people getting drunk in parks or in city centres was very unappealing, especially to parents but also to several of the young people.
Despite the practical planning that went into some young people’s first experiences of drinking, few had any idea as to what the effects might be or how much it was sensible to drink. As a result, unsurprisingly, it was common for many of the young people to feel pretty ill after drinking too much, too quickly.