Facts about youth and alcohol in Quebec 

In Quebec, like almost everywhere else in the world, it is illegal to sell alcohol to minors. The law is strict because, among other things, young people frequently drink too much, like to take risks, and can have problems and accidents caused by excessive drinking.  

Despite that, kids are exposed to alcohol early and everywhere, notably in the media, and many start drinking before they’re of legal age. That’s why you have to talk to them about it.  

In promoting the You Be the Judge program to elementary schools, we’re sometimes told that children of that age are too young to learn about drinking. And yet the statistics show that: 

  • By age nine, one in every four children has tried alcohol. 
  • More than two-thirds of children have had their first drink by the time they’re 14. 
  • In Quebec, even though the legal age for purchasing alcohol is 18, kids generally drink alcohol for the first time around the age of 12.  
  • About 10-12% of kids start drinking early, before the age of 12. Many of them have a predisposition related to behavioural problems (defiance, delinquency, etc.). 
  • 82% of students in secondary 5 have drunk alcohol.  
  • In 2019, 32% of secondary students had drunk to excess at least once during the previous year.  
  • In 2019, 30% of secondary 5 students had drunk abusively and repeatedly during the previous year.  

Adolescent vulnerability to alcohol  

Alcohol can interfere with physical and mental development, especially when it is consumed during adolescence and early adulthood:  

  • Drinking heavily during this time can upset the hormonal balance needed for the development of organs, muscles, bones and the reproductive system. 
  • Brain maturity: Adolescence is a critical period for the development of the brain’s frontal lobe, which is involved in decision-making, planning, strategizing, organization, concentration and attention. In teenagers, the capacity to think ahead is not yet fully developed, but the hormonal changes they experience create a tendency toward risky behaviour and thrill-seeking. This contradiction between brain maturity and puberty can encourage excessive drinking. 
  • It cannot be said for certain that alcohol consumption damages the adolescent brain, although recent studies show that excessive drinking during adolescence leads to real changes in some areas of the brain, particularly those involved in language comprehension, motor skills and habit formation. Furthermore, alcohol abuse creates habits that in the long run can lead to addiction. It can also become a risk factor in the development of chronic diseases such as cancer.  
  • Young people who drink heavily before adulthood risk developing a problem with drugs.  

The passage from adolescence to adulthood comes with many physical and psychological changes. This is a phase of transitions and transformations through which teens actively forge their future adult identity.  

In adolescence, a person develops not only independence and autonomy but also a moral compass (sound judgment and good behaviour).  

Because of the way it increases the risk of injury, unprotected or non-consensual sex, delinquency, violence and school dropout, alcohol is the substance most often associated with crime and most frequently linked to violent offences and sexual violence.  

Consuming a small amount of alcohol from time to time and trying cannabis on special occasions are experiences shared by many young people in today’s society, and this behaviour has few if any negative consequences. On the other hand, the regular or excessive consumption of alcohol and cannabis and the use of illegal and synthetic drugs are troubling issues, and it’s important to pay attention to the various factors that may explain why kids adopt these behaviours.  

Factors that motivate young people to drink 

Adolescence is a difficult time of enormous change, and it is often during these years that young people have their first experience with alcohol, either out of curiosity, for fun, to try something new or to belong to a group, but also to forget about conflicts, family problems, low self-esteem, etc. Sometimes teens get carried along by their friends (peer pressure), they want to socialize and be part of the fun, or they’re seeking to relieve stress by drinking.  

As drinking becomes more frequent, the reasons evolve. It can be for the feeling alcohol provides, or to be part of something (looking for love or identity), to work up the courage to commit a crime, etc. 

It’s best to delay the start of drinking for as long as possible, but parents can introduce their kids to alcohol at a family meal where moderate consumption enhances the pleasure of being together.  

What parents say about the importance of moderation can affect young people’s drinking, but it’s their behaviour and their own relationship to alcohol that matter most. Parents are the main role models – even if most kids will never admit it. So be careful not to send mixed messages and make sure your actions match your words. When talking to your children about drinking, you need to strike a balance between demonizing alcohol and being overly permissive.  

Having a first taste of alcohol at home, with the family, is very different from starting to drink with friends, which teens often do in secret and to excess, hoping to feel the effects of being drunk.  

Alcohol is everywhere on our screens (television and social media), and that can have a huge influence, depending on how many hours kids spend on their devices.   

A soon-to-be-released study conducted by the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) highlights the risks for young people exposed to public role models for whom alcohol is part of their daily lives, in socializing, dating, dealing with sorrow or disappointment. For example, the study notes that in reality TV shows like Occupation Double, Big Brother célébrités and L’amour est dans le pré, alcohol was present in 9 out of 10 episodes and made as many as 20 appearances in one episode. This behaviour, repeated at any time of day and presented as normal, trivializes the use of alcohol and leads young people to adopt the same behavior in their relationships.  

The presence of alcohol is also conspicuous on social media where, for example, viewers can watch contests sponsored by alcohol companies in the form of challenges that glorify alcohol abuse.  

The media have a social responsibility with respect to drinking among young people. They can also play a preventive role by devaluing drinking in certain situations, instead of promoting it systematically.  

Alcohol abuse and mental health: When to worry 

We are hearing more and more about anxiety and depression among young people. Also, the pandemic has led to much talk about the distress young people are feeling (isolated from friends, cut off from routines and sports, graduation events cancelled, etc.).  

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. So teens who drink to relieve boredom, to reduce stress or anxiety, or to forget their problems run the risk of misusing or overusing alcohol.  

Today, many young people are medicated for mental health problems such as anxiety, hyperactivity, bipolar disorder, behavioural issues and learning disabilities. Thus, we must also consider the possible effects of mixtures or interactions (drug or medication + alcohol = risk of developing symptoms of depression). 

The term “excessive drinking” is used when boys have had 5 drinks or more on the same occasion (4 drinks or more for girls) at least once during the previous 12 months.  

But when kids drink excessively 5 or more times in a year, we call it repeated, abusive drinking 

  • Excessive drinking is found among boys by age 14 and among both genders by age 16.  
  • In 2019, 32% of secondary students had consumed 5 or more drinks on the same occasion at least once during the previous 12 months.  
  • Excessive drinking creates habits that in the long run can lead to addiction, which is a mental health disorder. Young people who drink heavily before adulthood risk developing a drug problem. 
  • It bears noting that 5% of students who drink abusively will develop an alcohol-related problem later in life.  

Between 2000 and 2019, the proportion of secondary students who drank alcohol during the previous 12 months declined from 71% to 53%. Despite this downward trend, alcohol should not be trivialized.  

Also, watch out for the alcohol-energy drink mix popular among young people: some kids mix alcohol with energy drinks to stay awake longer or to mask the unpleasant taste of the alcohol. This is very bad idea, because the stimulant effect of the drinks can lead people to drink more and faster without realizing it.  

Why talk about it in school? 

Not all families are the same when it comes to teaching kids about drinking. That’s why Éduc’alcohol developed the You Be the Judge program: to get kids talking to each other and their teachers about the risks related to early drinking and the importance of moderation. 

And because children are exposed to alcohol long before they’re old enough to drink, it is important to give them the right tools at a critical point in their development, as they are defining their identity. It is equally essential to equip teachers so they can talk to children about alcohol in the right way, at the right time.  

Given that the subject of drinking can’t be addressed in the same way at every age, the program is designed for students from elementary grade 5 through secondary 5. 

For example, in elementary grade 5, in order to get students to think about different ways of reacting in situations where alcohol may be present, the discussion focuses first on peer pressure and self-affirmation before addressing particular situations.  

Secondary 2 students, on the other hand, are asked to reflect on the concepts of autonomy, addiction and awareness, while those in secondary 3 learn more about the biological aspects of alcohol use. In the final year of high school, the program encourages teens to adopt safe behaviours if they choose to drink, in spite of the risks they have learned about through the You Be the Judge program. 

While we need to be vigilant about how young people are exposed to alcohol, we must not forget that drinking does not have dramatic consequences for most of them. Still, this vital vigilance is everyone’s business, not just the responsibility of family, school and community groups.