The risks of adolescent alcohol consumption and binge drinking are well known. Studies have shown that the developing brain can be permanently damaged by heavy or binge drinking during teen years, and binge drinking has been associated with a higher risk of teens engaging in risky behaviours such as unprotected sex, violence and dangerous driving.
Yet a further correlation between adolescent drinking behaviour and socio-economic status is less clear. A 2014 study in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that a higher socio-economic background was linked to a greater risk of increased alcohol consumption and, in later adolescence, heavy episodic drinking and symptoms of alcohol dependence.
At the same time, a systematic review conducted just last year of 20 different studies in Europe, North America and other parts of the world found no overall relationship between parental socioeconomic status and adolescent binge drinking.
One concept used by sociologists to further tease out the nuances of class, economic strata and behaviour is the idea of relative deprivation. As opposed to absolute deprivation, which describes the condition of not having access to the basic necessities of life such as food and shelter, relative deprivation points to one individual’s comparison of his or her socioeconomic situation to that of others and forms the belief that he or she is being deprived of needs or goods that are more readily available to others.
A new study from McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy looks to see whether or not adolescent self-perceptions of relative deprivation have an impact on rates of alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Researchers focused on data concerning teens in France and Canada because of their different drinking cultures —France’s tolerance for underage drinking is one aspect of this, along with the fact that youth in North America more often report binge drinking behaviours in comparison to teens in European countries.
The Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study is a World Health Organization cross-national collaborative effort to collect data every four years on adolescents across 44 nations in Europe and North America. Researchers analyzed results from 5,636 French and 12,931 Canadian adolescents aged 11, 13 and 15. The survey asked students, “Have you ever had so much alcohol that you were really drunk?” and collected information on students’ family affluence, asking questions about whether students had their own bedroom, how many vacations their family took last year, and so on.
The results showed that Canadian adolescents were significantly more likely to have experienced drunkenness on more than one occasion compared to their French peers (21.6 per cent vs. 16.2 per cent).
However, the researchers found that Canadian adolescents with high relative deprivation were not more likely to report episodes of drunkenness than those with low relative deprivation, and in France, those with high relative deprivation were revealed to be less likely to report episodes of drunkenness than those with low relative deprivation.
“Our findings do not support the hypothesis that adolescents who experienced greater relative deprivation are more likely to report drunkenness,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review. “They suggest that policies and interventions on alcohol use should target adolescents across all levels of deprivation in Canada and particularly those that are relatively more affluent in France.”
The researchers suspect that the difference stems from Canada’s greater restrictions on alcohol (France prohibits alcohol purchase to those over 18 but has no restrictions on age for consumption), which may influence access to alcohol by adolescents of different socio-economic groups.