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Fewer U.S. adolescents are regularly binge drinking today than a generation ago, but not all teens are turning away from alcohol at the same rate, a new study suggests.
Just 2.6 percent of 13-year-olds were frequent binge drinkers between 2007 and 2015, down from 5 percent between 1991 and 1998, researchers report in Pediatrics. Over those same periods, the proportion of 18-year-olds consuming at least five drinks in a row at least twice every two weeks dropped from 20 percent to about 15 percent.
"What is unique from our study is that it's not only about binge drinking but also frequent involvement in binge drinking that is decreasing" said lead study author Bohyun Joy Jang of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"This could be good news, but there are also concerns - there are variations in the declining rates," Jang said by email. "First, black youth have experienced slower declines since 1991. Second, the gender gap is narrowing due to females’ slower decline in the frequent binge drinking rates."
While previous research has documented declines in teen alcohol use since the 1990s, the current study offers fresh insight into how binge drinking habits have changed over time.
For the study, Jang and colleagues analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of more than one million students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades between 1991 and 2015.
Teens responded to surveys that asked how often they could recall having at least five drinks in a row over the previous two weeks. They defined one drink as a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, a wine cooler, a shot glass of liquor or a mixed drink.
Teens born around 1990 had a lower risk of frequent binge drinking than those born earlier and later, the study found.
Girls were less likely to be frequent binge drinkers than boys, but the gap narrowed over time. Between 1991 and 1998, girls were 42 percent less likely to binge drink than boys, but they were just 29 percent less likely to binge drink in the period between 2007 and 2015.
Black teens were 58 percent less likely to be frequent binge drinkers than white youth between 1991 and 1998, but just 47 percent less likely by the end of the study.
Teens from households with less income and education were also more likely to report frequent binge drinking than their more affluent peers.
One limitation of the study is that it only included teens enrolled in school, which may not reflect all adolescents in the U.S., the authors note. It's also possible that the amount of alcohol teens consumed varied based on the types of beverage they drank.
Even so, the findings suggest that declines in teen drinking may not be uniform and that some adolescents may be more prone to this behavior than others, Dr. Justine Wittenauer Welsh of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta writes in an accompanying editorial.
"The findings from this study are particularly concerning because adolescents from racial and ethnic minorities are shown to be less likely to receive care for substance use and co-occuring disorders once they develop," Welsh said by email. "Any significant differences in the decline of these rates may indicate the potential for more individuals to develop problematic substance use."