Drinkaware Spring Research briefing: The importance of storytelling in research

Drinkaware Research Focus Blog

To mark the launch of the 3-year independent evaluation of the Junior-Cycle Alcohol Education Programme (JC-AEP), we hosted our Spring 2021 Research Briefing. In 2018, we commissioned Maynooth University to undertake a 3-year independent study to examine the effectiveness, acceptability, and implementation of the JC AEP over a three-year delivery period (2018-2020). This study was led by Professor Sinéad McGilloway, Founder and Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University Department of Psychology, in collaboration with Dr John Weafer of Weafer and Associates. The final summary report can be read here

We were delighted to open our latest briefing with renowned global and behavioural economist, broadcaster, author and Adjunct Professor at Trinity College Dublin, David McWilliams, who participated in a short discussion with our CEO, Sheena Horgan. David highlighted the value of research in providing a true picture of human behaviour. The importance of storytelling lies not in number crunching, but in how you translate this story into real lives. He talked about how our brains are a repository of stories and this is how we remember, communicate, love and react.  Irrationality is the essence of human behaviour and is associated with the ability to change your mind and to be persuaded.  David concluded by noting that it is therefore crucial to tell the story of the research properly because that is how we remember things and these stories need to have morality points that we can identify with.  

Professor Sinéad McGilloway then carefully took the 50+ virtual audience through the story of how the evaluation of the JC AEP took place by tracking changes in ‘real time’, in the use of, and attitudes toward, alcohol amongst teenagers (n=351) as they grew and matured during the first three years of post-primary school. This involved a combination of numerical data (questionnaires) and listening to peoples’ experiences (teacher and student focus group discussions) and the various methodologies used provided important triangulation in terms of validity. The keynote presentation was followed by an insightful discussion. Sinéad spoke of how students reported an improved understanding of impact of alcohol consumption on health from 22% pre-programme to 50% in 3rd year. This is important in equipping young people to make decisions around drinking and around delaying the age of first drink. The evaluation found an increase in intent not to drink among students who participated in the JC AEP rising from 30% in 1st year to 54% in 3rd year. Sinéad also highlighted that attitudes are difficult to assess but reassuringly a large proportion of students agreed ‘it is best to delay your first drink until you are old enough to deal with the consequences’ and ‘alcohol can negatively affect academic performance in school/sport.’  

A worrying number of students evaluated noted they drink because ‘it makes us feel good’. There is a known link between alcohol consumption and coping amongst adults, and now there is some evidence in this evaluation to suggest a similar (pre-pandemic) motivation for students. 1 in 5 of those who were drinking in 3rd year, agreed with the statement: “I feel less pressure on me when I have a beer or two.” This provides merit to examine this issue further as based on best practice, empowering students is key to this programme, by enabling them to become assertive in their decision making.  

One recurring theme identified in the story of this research which was not necessarily something the research team set out to examine, is that of parents’ role in underage drinking in Ireland. Large portions of students told the research team that they had first consumed alcohol in their home. They also generally had no difficulty in accessing alcohol (especially as they got older) and we know that exposure and access are key predictors of underage drinking. A sizeable proportion (50%) were of the view that parents don’t really mind them drinking as long as they don’t drink too much. While Sinéad acknowledged that this information is as perceived by students, these findings are vital in terms of what it tells us about parents and how they model and talk about alcohol in the home, which may in turn unintentionally enable underage drinking.  

The story of this extensive research has shown how, as Sinéad noted ‘’Research raises many more questions than it answers’’ and to this, the role of parents and guardians is key. At the centre of our future research will be the opportunity for both parents and young people to tell their story, of alcohol in the home setting. Since March 2020, alcohol has moved from the public to private space of the home and whether parents are drinking more or not, their children are more likely to see them drink simply because we are all at home during 2020 and so far into 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as documented in our 2020 Barometer findings Families, Alcohol and Covid-19.  It is therefore likely, that adolescents’ exposure and access to alcohol will have increased along that timeline and this too is an important story to tell.  

Critical assessment and rigorous objective evaluation are vital to both ongoing programme development and effectiveness. The JC AEP provides a valuable example of the development of a preventative programme based on research and evidence to generate positive behaviour change in young people aged 12-15 years. Ultimately the story told at our latest briefing is that the evaluation documented both positive and worrying findings. The key take-out is that there is a role and a need for alcohol education amongst our young people, and to maximise impact we need to look at a young age. There is no place for alcohol in childhood. Parents’ and guardians’ behaviour and attitudes cannot be separated from adolescents’, both need to be tackled together as part of a coordinated society-wide response to addressing alcohol misuse and harm.     

This blog is the first in a series that aims to fully tell the story of the insights gathered over the three-year evaluation. The focus of the next blog in this series to be posted next month (April) will be on teachers and students and will be written by our Education Manager, Martha Sweeny email: martha@drinkaware.ie  

We look forward to facilitating further debate on alcohol and behavioural change by hosting our next research briefing in Summer 2021 and in so doing, contribute to sharing learnings and knowledge. If you would like to be added to our invite list, please email: research@drinkaware.ie We also encourage you to look at the section dedicated to our Research Briefing Series on our website to which any outputs from this and all previous events are added and freely accessible.