Young people in Australia generally use less alcohol now than before. This is a trend seen globally, especially across many Western countries. However, among young Australian girls the trend goes the opposite direction: alcohol use has increased among female teenagers in Australia during the pandemic.
A study by the University of Sydney examined how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Big Six lifestyle risk factors: Physical inactivity, poor diet, poor sleep, excessive recreational screen time, alcohol use, and tobacco use of Australian teenagers.
The study included 983 Australian teens from New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia and analyzed their data from before the pandemic in 2019 and then in 2021 after the pandemic had hit.
The study found that overall,
- Excessive recreational screen time, insufficient fruit intake, and alcohol and tobacco use increased during the pandemic.
- Alcohol use increased more among girls compared to boys.
- Poor sleep decreased during the two years but increased for girls.
- The use of high sugar-sweetened beverages and discretionary food consumption reduced among teens subjected to stay-at-home orders, compared with those not in lockdown.
The results about teenage girls are especially concerning since young people in Australia are generally reducing their alcohol use.
Alcohol use is really bucking the trend here because we’re seeing a decrease in alcohol use generally in young people. It’s super concerning,” said Professor Maree Teesson, Director of the Matilda Centre, as per The Sydney Morning Herald.Professor Maree Teesson, Director of the Matilda Centre
Pandemic toll on mental health of young Australians
The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of young Australians. A recent poll found that,
- one in four young Australians thought about suicide over the past two years, and
- 15% attempted self-harm.
According to Dr. Lauren Gardner, a research fellow at the Matilda Centre for Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use in the Faculty of Medicine and Health, the mental health of young girls has specifically deteriorated due to the pandemic. There has been a sharp increase in self-harm among this group, bigger than in any other group.
As Dr. Gardner says increased alcohol use is often co-morbid with other mental health problems.
The way I see it is that both sleep problems and alcohol use are often co-morbid with mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Lauren Gardner, as per The Sydney Morning Herald.Dr. Lauren Gardner, research fellow, the Matilda Centre for Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use in the Faculty of Medicine and Health
Professor Teesson says the trend in young girls using more alcohol and having poor sleep shows they are trying to use risky behaviors to cope with the distress of the pandemic. Dr. Gardner says one explanation for the concerning trend among girls is that they tend to rely heavily on social networks for support and this was disrupted during the pandemic, pushing them to cope with unhealthy behaviors.
The relationship between poor mental health and risky behaviors is a vicious cycle. Poor mental health leads to risky behaviors and these behaviors in turn lead to poor mental health.
Not getting enough sleep increases the risk of poor diet and mental ill-health. And the earlier teens start using alcohol the more at risk they are later in life of developing alcohol use disorders.
Poor coping mechanisms leave you at higher risk of anxiety and depression,” said Professor Maree Teesson, Director of the Matilda Centre, as per The Sydney Morning Herald.Professor Maree Teesson, Director of the Matilda Centre
The authors of the study call to urgently address the Big 6 health behaviors of Australian teens.
Big Alcohol strategy fuels mental health crisis
One major reason for young people turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism is the marketing strategies of the alcohol industry.
- One report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Cancer Council WA in 2020 found that Australians saw an alcohol advertisement every 35 seconds on Facebook and Instagram.
- This marketing used pandemic themes, including:
- Get easy access to alcohol without leaving your home (58%)
- Save money (55%),
- Buy more (35%),
- Consume alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic (24%),
- Use alcohol to cope, ‘survive’, or feel better (16%), and
- Choose ‘healthier’ alcohol products (14%).
Furthermore, young people are increasingly targeted by Big Alcohol in novel ways, such as through “Dark Marketing” which is hard to monitor and therefore impossible to regulate.
This type of marketing uses advertisements that appear fleetingly only for audiences targeted explicitly by the marketer. Young people have called for better protection from this type of alcohol marketing.
There is a solution to the problem of the alcohol industry preying on youth through marketing. The World Health Organization recommends banning alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion or to develop comprehensive, statutory regulations to place common-sense limits on alcohol marketing.