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Campaign gives parents, teens hard, shocking facts to curb underage drinking

Posted October 25

The campaign aims to curb underage drinking.
Courtesy: Talk It Out NC

The television advertisements, radio spots and social media posts that are part of Talk It Out, an ABC Commission campaign to reduce underage drinking, are designed as gut punches for parents.

A mother sobbing over her teenage son, hooked up to a ventilator after drinking and driving.

The last breathes of a teenage girl, alone and splayed out on the floor in a house littered with empty beer and liquor bottles. "Take a deep breath and start having the conversations that can stop underage drinking," says the voice over.

The ads will jolt just about any parent out of the comfort zone of believing their child would never be the one to drink.

"It is shocking," said Luther Snyder, executive director of the commission's initiative to reduce underage drinking. "But from our research, the parents say they need that scare, that shock."

The campaign, now closing in on its second year, is aimed at reducing the rate of underage drinking in North Carolina.

Nearly two-thirds of middle school and high school-aged kids in North Carolina know other kids around their age who have tried alcohol. The average age that most kids try alcohol for the first time is before they turn 14. In fact, more kids try alcohol for the first time in middle school than try it first in high school.

For this reason, the campaign is encouraging parents not to wait until the high school years to start talking about the dangers of underage drinking. And it's reminding parents that, yes, they can make a difference.

"Through the research, we found that most children out there want their parents to actually talk to them," Snyder said. "If you’re a parent of a teenager, you might disagree a little bit with that. But they do. They want that guidance."

Talk It Out is now in the third phase of the campaign. The first two phases laid out the problem for parents. This most recent one dives deeper into the real reasons why underage drinking is so dangerous and explores how a teenager's brain reacts differently to alcohol than an adult one. The average brain is fully developed around age 25.

The goal is to give parents solid information to present to their kids as reasons not to take a sip other than "because I said so," Snyder said.

"It walks the parent and child together through what each individual section of the brain does and the implications of alcohol on most of it," he said. "The point is to give these parents some hard facts to explain to their kids - it's not just me saying no. Here's the science."

Some examples, pulled from TalkItOutNC.org:

  • The medulla controls vital functions such as breathing and the beating of the heart. These functions can slow down when anybody drinks - or even stop completely and cause the person to die (like the girl taking her last breaths in that advertisement). But it's particularly dangerous for teenagers who often don't feel the negative effects of alcohol as much as adults and might drink more in a shorter period.
  • The cerebral cortex is where higher brain function occurs, including memory, language and consciousness. The teenage brain seems to be less reactive than the adult brain to slurring words, losing balance and alcohol’s other short-term effects - all signals that help signal that it's time to stop drinking. Hangovers also are less severe for teens. At the same time, young people seem more sensitive to the pleasurable effects of drinking, such as feeling more comfortable in social situations. And that might just encourage them to drink.
  • Serious alcohol-related brain damage during adolescence happens in the hippocampus, which is key for memory and learning. Alcohol can block a key receptor responsible for processing and storing memories; this effect is more pronounced in adolescents than in adults with fully developed brains. Adolescent brains are also much more sensitive to alcohol toxicity and are more vulnerable to cell death. One study showed that a single large dose of alcohol caused significant loss of brain stem cells.
  • The hypothalamus plays an important part in how our bodies respond to stress by coordinating the release of hormones that prepare us for “flight or fight.” But this part of the brain, like others, is still developing during adolescence. Heavy drinking during adolescence may lead to long-lasting changes in how this system responds to stress in adulthood.
  • The prefrontal cortex, often called the control center of the brain, is responsible for judgment, behavior and impulse control. It’s one of the areas of the adolescent brain most affected by alcohol. Even low levels of alcohol have a negative impact on planning, organizing, managing time, paying attention and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors. This is of particular concern during adolescence, a time when the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed and when many teens begin to misuse alcohol.

"The kids may not have the risk assessment there," Snyder said. "They might have more euphoric sensations and then go do something stupid like get in a car or go outside and hike in the cold while they are hammered. ... They don’t have that little voice inside their head saying this might not be a good idea. They want to get that ‘high.'"

That lack of judgment is exactly why parents need to have these tough conversations with their kids - as young as 10.

"The conversation is going to be happening with the kids at the bus stop, with kids at school, at the football game, going out on a Friday night," Snyder said. "If the parents aren't part of that conversation, they are missing the entire game."

In addition to the advertisements and social media posts, Snyder said the campaign also is reaching out to partner with more agencies across the state who work with teenagers. The campaign also recently launched a Spanish site.​

"We’re still in the awareness phase," Snyder said. But they'll never really be out if it. "There will always be another batch of teenagers and parents coming along," he said.

For more information about how to talk to your kids about the dangers of alcohol, TalkItOutNC.org offers some great facts and information.

Here's the campaign's "Lungs" spot ...

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