By Timo Dietrich, PhD candidate, Social Marketing @ Griffith

When educating young people about the effects of alcohol it is best, indeed important, not to take a one-size-fits-all view. Such an approach runs the risk of sending the wrong message to the wrong group. It is crucial that the diversity and complexity of the teenage group being targeted by an education initiative is taken into consideration.

During the past year I have been involved in a Griffith University research project where the attitudes to alcohol consumption of more than 2200 Year 10 students in Queensland were assessed.

Our research, which incorporated 14 Catholic high schools around the state, was carried out in in partnership with the Queensland Catholic Education Commission. The project was also part of a larger government and industry-funded social marketing program aimed at improving existing alcohol education programs in high school settings.

Offbalance.webThe average initiation age for drinking is around 15.7 years of age. Therefore, when delivering alcohol education programs, there is a particular need to tailor messages to drinkers, non-drinkers and students that are just drinking to fit in.

Our study identified three unique subgroups among 14-16 year-olds in terms of drinking behaviours, attitudes to binge drinking and demographic characteristics. These we called the abstainers, the bingers and the moderate drinkers.

At 58%, the abstainers made up the biggest subgroup, with moderate drinkers accounting for 25% and bingers 17% of those surveyed.

Abstainers don’t drink any alcohol. Only 5% of them have ever even tried a full standard drink. They have the lowest-risk attitudes, lowest intentions to binge drink and are surrounded by a social environment that neither engages in nor supports binge drinking.

Bingers have more positive views towards binge drinking and have the highest intentions to binge drink within the next two weeks. Two-thirds of this subgroup drank alcohol regularly and every third binges at least once a month. Their social environment was more in favour of drinking and has higher parental drinking as well.

The moderate drinkers drank on a regular basis – monthly or less. However, the good news is the majority of these did not engage in binge drinking escapades. They have moderate attitudes towards binge drinking.

All of the students surveyed took part in Game On: Know Alcohol, a Social Marketing @ Griffith program which was designed to shift adolescent beliefs away from thinking that drinking alcohol to excess is enjoyable and fun. The interactive program included activities such as wearing beer goggles and lying in the gutter pretending to have passed out.

When considering the data gathered, I specifically examined how the abstainers, bingers and moderate drinkers responded and this is where it got interesting.

Good news first. Positive changes in knowledge and emotional attitudes were observed across all three groups. These are strong findings as this suggests that students thought it was less enjoyable to binge drink post our program.

However, we saw some mixed effects across all three subgroups as well. The most powerful positive change effects we observed for the bingers across all reported measures.

Modest effects were recorded for the moderate drinkers and mixed results were observed with the abstainers. This may be attributable to the fact that the abstainers possessed the lowest drinking attitudes and lowest drinking intentions prior to taking part in the Game On: Know Alcohol program. Yet, these results showed that there are differential program effects for each of the three subgroups.

Passedout.webThe key question I then considered was how we can ensure better effects for all three groups when an alcohol education program is rolled out in a school setting.

The answer is twofold. First, it is essential to tailor alcohol education resources to each of the three subgroups as they will be responsive to different messages.

For example, if the bingers already drink excessively we don’t need to send them the message that they should not be drinking at all. This will only make them rebel more and most likely increase consumption over time. Bingersare a crucial segment to tackle and they need moderation and harm minimisation messages.

Abstainers,on the contrary, need to be reassured that their choice not to drink is a good choice and should ideally be carried out until they are 18, if not longer.

Moderate drinkers needto be encouraged to only consume moderately, if at all, and should be equipped with additional strategies on how to look out for themselves and other friends that might drink excessively and are prone to alcohol-related harm and violence.

Second, and most importantly, we need to involve the audience, the students, when we design alcohol education programs.

The majority of programs out there are expert driven in their design and they forget to ask students what they actually want from alcohol education. We cannot expect experts and teachers to have all the answers – particularly not when it comes to Australia’s most beloved legal drug.

Timo Dietrich is a PhD candidate at Griffith Business School. He took part in Griffith University’s Know More in 60 Seconds initiative, where he revealed how the shape of a glass can affect how quickly people drink alcohol. Check it out here.