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Childhood Sipping Not Linked to Future Alcohol Problems, Study

Update Date: Aug 26, 2014 07:24 PM EDT

Scientists still don't know if sipping alcohol harms children.

After analyzing the antecedent predictors of childhood initiation of sipping or tasting alcohol, researchers found that the initiation of sipping/tasting alcohol was less related to psychosocial proneness for problems behavior and more related to perceived parental approval.

"We currently do not have a good handle on how common sipping or tasting alcohol is among children less than 12 years old in the U.S.," study author John E. Donovan, associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a news release.

"There is no ongoing federal surveillance study that asks about child sipping or child drinking. All we really have are data from several community-level surveys which suggest that sipping or tasting alcohol is very common among children. Our own research has found that by age 12, 66 percent of children had sipped or tasted alcohol," he added.

"The first 'regular drink' is often not the first experience that many children have with alcohol," Robert A. Zucker, director of the Addiction Research Center at the University of Michigan, said in a news release. "In fact, although survey data indicate that only seven percent of 12-year-olds have had a first regular drink, community surveys indicate that more than half of 12 year olds have already had a sip, and even about one third have by age eight. The question for parents will be: 'Does that matter?'"

"We don't really know yet whether childhood sipping or tasting has any negative consequences," added Donovan. "Our previous research found that sipping or tasting by age 10 was significantly related to early-onset drinking, that is, having more than a sip or a taste before age 15. And previous research has found that early-onset drinking is associated with numerous negative outcomes in both adolescence and young adulthood, such as alcohol abuse and dependence, illicit drug use, prescription drug misuse, delinquent behavior, risky sexual behavior, motor vehicle crashes, job problems, etc. So, logically, childhood sipping may relate to these later problems as well, but it may not be the case that sipping in childhood has any negative outcomes. We just don't know yet."

The latest study involved 452 children between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. The participants were selected from Allegheny County using targeted-age directory sampling and random digit dialing procedures.

Participants were then interviewed using computer-assisted interviews, and antecedent variables collected at baseline were studied as predictors of the initiation of sipping/tasting alcohol before the age of 12.

"There are two main findings," said Donovan. "First, children who sipped alcohol before age 12 reported that their parents were more approving of child sipping or tasting alcohol, and more likely to be current drinkers than did children who did not have a first sip of alcohol before age 12. Their parents reported the same things. Thus, there was a significant relationship between both child perceptions and parents' own reports of their drinker status and level of disapproval of child sipping and later child initiation of sipping or tasting alcohol before age 12. Second, children who started sipping before age 12 did not differ from children who did not on variables that have been shown in previous research to relate to involvement in other kinds of problem behavior in adolescence, such as problem drinking, marijuana use, other drug use, delinquent behavior, and risky sexual behavior. This finding suggests that sipping during childhood is not itself a problem behavior like delinquent behavior or drug use."

"In other words, first sipping is not an early indicator of issues that would be of concern to parents, namely problem proneness," study author Robert A. Zucker, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, said in a news release. "At the same time, the study does demonstrate that earlier sipping is related to a familial culture of more alcohol use, expressed via parental approval of sipping in their children, and by greater alcohol consumption by the parents. However, although the majority of early sippers do not go on to be early drinkers, one third of them do so. This research tends to suggest that early sipping may not be a causal factor in this progression, but their current data do not allow them to definitively rule that out. Thus, the important question of concern is the one following from this research: do the tastes or sips offered by parents operate in a similar fashion as the first drinking experience with a 'real' drink? That is, is early sipping also a pathway into problem behavior in a more general sense?"

"Parents and school are the most likely sources of social influence concerning whether it is appropriate for children to drink alcohol," added Donovan.

"This research suggests that if children do not see their parents as strongly disapproving of child sipping, the children will be more likely to take a first step into alcohol use. More than that, however, it shows that if parents drink in front of their children, their children will be more likely to sip or taste alcohol as a child. I would hope that this research would make parents be a bit more cautious about drinking in front of their children and about the messages they are sending to their children about drinking. They also need to be aware that there is no research that establishes that 'teaching' children to drink or letting them drink in the home protects them from later involvement in binge drinking or alcohol problems," he added.

The latest findings will be published in the September 2014 online-only issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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