Junior Cycle Students more likely to abstain or delay drinking with early education, Maynooth University study shows

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Drinkaware, the national charity working to prevent and reduce alcohol misuse in Ireland, has published the findings of Year Two of its Alcohol Education Programme (AEP). This longitudinal study by Maynooth University tracks the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of almost 500 junior cycle pupils in response to fact-based alcohol education over a three-year period (2018-2020).

The central aim of the study is to pilot the delivery of evidence-informed alcohol education to junior cycle students via their teachers, and to investigate the effectiveness and acceptability of this as students transition through the first three formative years of secondary school.

Among the key findings of Year Two of the programme led and evaluated independently by Professor Sinead McGilloway, Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University’s Dept. of Psychology were:

Increased Knowledge of Alcohol Harms & Consequences

  • Following completion of Years One and Two, students were three-times more likely to report knowing the facts about alcohol (10% pre-programme in 2018, 30% in Year Two).
  • By Year Two, students’ knowledge of alcohol consequences and harms had increased, specifically knowledge of its impact on mental health (+20%), physical health (+15%), and the consequences of underage drinking (+12%).

Positive Behaviour & Behavioural Intent re Abstinence

  • The findings show a stability among students who reported that they do not drink alcohol at all – 60% pre-programme vs 59% in Year Two.
  • Among these students, those who reported having ‘no interest or intention of drinking’ has increased to 47% from 30% pre-programme.
  • Students who stated an intention to delay drinking for as long as possible rose marginally to 28% vs 25% pre-programme.
  • However, a small but increasing proportion of the 40% who indicated at baseline  that, at some stage, they had consumed  alcohol, appear to be engaged in more frequent and potentially harmful drinking at Year Two (e.g. consuming more drinks in one sitting) and were beginning to develop less healthy attitudes.

Ease of Access & Facilitation at Home Continues to Accommodate Underage Drinking

  • Of the students who had consumed alcohol, the largest proportion (57%) had their first drink either at their own, or someone else’s house, supporting findings from the most recent HBSC report and highlighting the role of parents and other significant adults as primary influencers.

Read the commentary report

Lead author of the study, Professor Sinéad McGilloway, Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research at Maynooth University’s Dept. of Psychology said: “The collective findings of this study suggest that Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme has led to substantial and sustained improvements in students’ knowledge and understanding of alcohol when compared with pre-programme levels.

It is likely that this programme played an important role in stabilising the proportion of students who do not drink alcohol and those who intend to delay as long as possible. Students felt that they knew more about the facts about alcohol following the Alcohol Education Programme than before – and these increases were sustained at Year Two. The findings also raise questions about the important role of parents (and possibly the wider family circle), not only in protecting their teenagers, but also how they themselves think about, portray and ‘model’, the drinking of alcohol in the home.”

Commenting on the AEP Programme, Sheena Horgan, CEO, Drinkaware said: “The evidence shows that students’ attitudes, knowledge and behaviour have all been positively influenced by their participation in Drinkaware’s Alcohol Education Programme. Just two years in, and we know the programme is working and has the potential to do more. What’s emerging is a clear rationale for earlier, evidence-based prevention at junior cycle so that young people have the knowledge and skills to shape current and future behaviours around alcohol for the better.

In response to the Year Two research findings, Sheena Horgan, CEO, Drinkaware, added: “The data also corroborates the fact that underage drinking is being initiated and facilitated at home. We need a culture shift away from the normalisation of underage drinking and widespread acceptance of it as a cultural inevitability. At 15 years and younger, the age of the first drink in Ireland is unacceptably young, and it is beholden on us as a society to change this. Primary prevention, stopping it before it starts, requires significant changes in attitudes, knowledge and behaviour, all of which can be supported by effective alcohol education. 

There is no place for alcohol in childhood, and through the collective efforts of Irish society, from educators to parents, to charities such as Drinkaware, we can make a difference to the next generation’s relationship with alcohol. This independent evaluation of the Alcohol Education Programme suggests that the Drinkaware programme, which was highly praised by both teachers and students alike, has a positive and relevant contribution to help make that change.”