New data released today from the Partnership for a Drug Free America suggest that not only are girls now drinking more than boys, they turn to drugs and alcohol for more serious reasons as well. The report, which analyzed results from the 2009 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), a survey of teen attitudes and behaviors, shows that the number of middle- and high-school girls who say they drink has increased by 11 percent in the past year, from 53 percent to 59 percent. Boys have stayed at about the same level, hovering around 52 percent.
These numbers are more indicative of a long-term trend than a sudden uptick. In 2005 the rate of girls who had used alcohol in the past year as surveyed by the partnership hit 57 percent, only to fall back to 55 percent in 2007 and 53 percent in 2008. (During that same time, boys continued to fall within a couple of percentage points of 50 percent, but the changes were not statistically significant.)
These aren’t the only data to note issues involving girls and drinking. According to Monitoring the Future, an ongoing study that monitors the habits and attitudes of young Americans, the number of high-school students who admitted being drunk in the previous 30 days has changed dramatically for boys compared with girls. In 1998, 39 percent of boys reported being drunk in the previous 30 days, compared with 26.6 percent of girls. Ten years later, in 2008, 29.2 of boys reported being drunk during the 30-day period, while girls stayed relatively steady at 26.2 percent. “The numbers go down for boys and girls, but they go down much more dramatically for boys,” says Amelia Arria, director of the center on young adult health and development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “It represents a 25 percent decrease for boys, but only a 1 percent decrease for girls. Girls are staying kind of level, and boys are dropping.”
For years, boys were the focus of underage-drinking interventions, but for the past decade, researchers have seen a close in the gender gap, and the media have jumped on the news. Researchers speculate that more products devoted to making drinking easier and tastier—the sugar-laden beverages known as alco-pops—are a factor. “There’s a whole new raft of products that have come out in the last 10 to 12 years that were oriented to young females,” says David Jerigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “Alcohol now gets sold to girls as a functional food: it gets sold with calorie information, a drink of fitness, a drink with health benefits.”
But girls may be less concerned about their figure than they are about, well, everything else. The Partnership for a Drug Free America results also show that girls are more likely to associate drugs and alcohol with a way to avoid problems and relieve stress. (Boys, on the other hand, show dramatic increases in seeing drugs and alcohol as social lubricants: in 2009 compared with 2008, they were 16 percent more likely to see them as a way to make socializing easier, and 23 percent more likely to label drinking as a necessary ingredient for a party.)
Teen girls are more likely to be attuned to their feelings, says Leslie Walker, M.D., director of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and therefore may seek alcohol as a way to self-medicate. “Girls tend to be more internalizers with issues that are happening anyway. It makes sense that if they have some stress and things that they are dealing with, they’re going to take care of themselves instead of reaching out.”
Recent research on the adolescent brain has shown significant differences between males and females. Arria says, “Girls tend to be more sensitive to emotional stress, neurologically. Girls mature a little bit earlier in parts of the brain; boys develop later in those areas.” That increased sensitivity, she says, combined with more relaxed attitudes and easier access to alcohol, may explain the difference in boys and girls when it comes to drinking.
It’s also possible that the more developed emotional brain allows girls to be more self-aware and honest about their motivations than boys. “I think early on, girls are more willing to admit negative emotions than boys,” says Eric Wagner, professor at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work at Florida International University. “They might be drinking for the same reasons as boys, but boys are much less likely to admit those reasons.” In his interventions with high-school students, says Wagner, kids are still very much drawn to traditional gender stereotypes, with boys associating drinking with a type of macho culture.
The stress of figuring out gender roles, of doing well in school, and of the larger social and economic realities has led this generation’s teenagers to be more anxious than previous generations, says Walker. “It’s a particularly stressful time for kids right now. They’re seeing their parents stressed right now about the economy and jobs and thinking, what is there going to be for me?”
Adults, says Walker, often minimize the stress felt by their children, which can seem trivial compared with grown-up problems—after all, kids don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage. But to teenagers, that stress is very real, and the coping mechanisms they use to deal with that stress set a lifelong pattern. “They’re learning the tools right then for what they’re going to use to handle adversity for the rest of their lives." And as more and more studies show the danger of alcohol on developing brains, it's important that the tools they use now won't damage them later.