As prom season and high school graduation approaches, underage drinking is on parents’ minds. How to keep kids from drinking, and driving drunk, is at the top of the agenda.
Police say that underage drinking is a new and more dangerous phenomenon than it used to be, and parents are fighting an uphill battle against songs and movies that glorify drinking.
On Monday night, MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving — representatives came to Rockville to meet with parents and people who work in their communities to combat underage drinking and drunken driving.
Parents have more influence than they believe over kids’ drinking, Herman Bonaparte of MADD said. But access to 24/7 media on smartphones that puts drinking in kids’ faces and in the hands of their favorite musicians might be parents’ number one enemy, he argued.
On 8tracks.com, a popular site where users can share playlists, one is titled “My Favorite Songs Before High School Graduation” and illustrated with a vodka bottle.
In “Tik Tok,” Kesha sings that she brushes her teeth “with a bottle of Jack” (Daniel’s Whiskey). In another song, she says to live like you’ll “die young.”
MADD advocates are trying to prevent just that — dying young — as teens dance to her songs all over. And just try to come up with a movie in which the cool kids eschew alcohol.
Even outside of pop culture, “the community around us is very much one of alcohol,” said Katherine Wood, a parent on the wellness committee for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School PTSA. “To model good behavior in our society is very difficult.”
Police officers with the Montgomery County Alcohol Initiative Section also chimed in during the meeting about what they see as they crack down on underage drinking.
Deputy John Durham, an alcohol enforcement specialist and drug recognition expert for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, said teens are drinking more than they used to.
“It’s not necessarily the number of kids who are drinking — it’s the intensity with which they’re drinking,” Durham said. “They’re starting at a younger age and building tolerance.”
Kids have more access to alcohol than they used to as well. “They have the disposable income,” he said.
And they’re not taking care of each other the way they used to. In prior years, Durham said, teens had less alcohol and would look out for one another more.
Now, the unit that tackles underage drinking will bust parties to find a dozen bottles of liquor — and not the cheap stuff, but specifically the kind of liquor that appears in music videos, like Ciroc vodka, promoted by Sean Combs. They also find kids taking videos of dangerously intoxicated friends, stumbling around or even seizing on the floor.
Cops often face parents who tell the police to spend their time elsewhere.
MADD cites research that shows that underage kids who get a strong message that drinking is not acceptable are 80 percent less likely to drink. Those whose parents allow a drink at home are much more likely to drink outside the house, Bonaparte said. And despite all the eye rolling, three in four kids say that parents are the number one influence over their decision over whether or not to drink.
Initially formed to fight drunken driving, MADD now advocates against underage drinking, also.
“I wish Alisa were around to roll her eyes at me,” said MADD National President Jan Withers. She told the story of her daughter Alisa, who died after getting in the car with a drunken driver.
Alisa, a sophomore in high school in the early 1990s in Upper Marlboro, wasn’t drinking, but she and her friends were hanging out with senior boys during spring break who were. One of the boys was driving when he went off the road and Alisa was ejected from the car.
In Maryland in 2012, there were more than 23,000 DUI arrests, according to MADD data, and 160 drunken-driving-related fatalities, accounting for 32 percent of all traffic deaths.
MADD recommends that parents talk with their kids frequently about underage drinking and drinking and driving and set an example.
For prom in particular, Bonaparte suggests recruiting popular students to plan a school-organized after-party to get kids to attend. It’s not only driving that’s the problem, but teens getting dangerously drunk, MADD says.