Study Looks at High Schoolers' Binge Drinking, Is Pretty Scary

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Newsflash: a recent study on teenage binge drinking reveals that teens these days are drinking a lot. No, but seriously, like, a lot.

The study, conducted by University of Michigan researchers, was published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The new study is surprisingly the first to focus on the extremes of high school students’ alcohol intake — most surveys about high school drinking just ask if students have had five or more drinks in the past week, and anything beyond that has been relegated to the college kids.

First, the technicalities: The study looked at a representative sample of more than 16,000 high school seniors from 2005 to 2011, and binge drinking behaviors. Binge drinking is defined as the amount of alcohol resulting in a blood alcohol level (BAL) of .08 percent (the legal limit) — typically four drinks in two hours for women, or five drinks in two hours for men. It doesn’t seem like a lot — half a bottle of wine over two hours constitutes a ‘binge,’ according to these guidelines (guilty).

But it’s the extreme binge drinking — defined as having 10 or more drinks in those two hours — among high schoolers that is going to concern people.

This is what the study found:

  • 20 percent of high schoolers (3,200 of the 16,000) had done some binge drinking during the past two weeks
  • Half of those (1,600) had had 10 or more drinks
  • A quarter of the drink-happy group (800) had had 15 or more drinks
  • And one strange factoid: Students with college-educated parents are more inclined to binge drink, but are less likely to be in the 15-or-more group than those whose parents didn’t attend college.

But there’s a twist: Rates of teen binge drinking dropped significantly over the course of the study, but the rate of high schoolers who knocked back 10 drinks or more — the extremists — didn’t change. It seems like although high schoolers as a group are drinking less, those who are drinking dangerously are drinking more.

Of course, it’s possible that the numbers reported by those who had 10 to 15 (or more) drinks could be a little blurry. As epidemiologist Ralph Hingson pointed out in his editorial about the study, it gets sort of hard to remember how many drinks you’ve had once you’ve had more than 10 — according to the study’s authors, rates of blackout are 50/50 once you hit a BAC of .22 percent.

Interestingly enough, in a contradiction to recent studies published about college women out-binging their male colleagues, high school girls aren’t drinking as much as the boys. According to study leader Megan Patrick, reasons for this are unclear, but it could be that high school girls don’t yet feel the pressure to keep up with guys, as some reports indicate they do in gender-based social situations in college.

Importantly for women, binge drinking sits at a lower threshold than it does for men. For a 135-lb woman, 15 or more drinks puts her BAL above .45 percent — more than five times the legal limit. 

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