Changes in alcohol-related cognitions and drinking behaviours from early to mid-adolescence: A longitudinal mixed methods study

Fox, Katherine Ann
Alcohol use, during early adolescence specifically, has been associated with a range of negative health and social consequences. While the prevalence of adolescent drinking behaviours has decreased in recent decades, there is a sharp increase in adolescent alcohol use between the ages of 13 and 15 years; a pattern which is evident both nationally and internationally. There is a general lack of clarity around the development of alcohol-related cognitions and their relationship with drinking behaviours, in the context of their lived environment, during early and middle adolescence, when alcohol use notably increases. This study aims to provide clarity and context by utilising a longitudinal, mixed methods investigation in measuring quantitative temporal changes during early adolescence and contextualising these changes by qualitatively analysing adolescents’ narratives around alcohol-related perceptions and social norms, and how they may change during the same time period. A longitudinal mixed-methods study design was employed, and data were gathered through self-administered questionnaires and focus group discussions, at the beginning (T1) and end (T2) of an academic year (2016/2017). Participants at T1 (N=407) had a mean age of 13.4 years; at T2 (N=337) the mean age was 14.0 years. Results showed a significant increase in drinking behaviours during early adolescence, with concurrent significant changes in reporting of alcohol-related cognitions (for peers, friends, and parents), many of which became increasingly positive during this time, particularly among second-year participants. Qualitative findings mirrored these changes by showing a subtle but important pattern of increasing acceptance of peer alcohol use and a perception of a proliferation of drinking among second-year groups. This study supports the significance of perceived social distance between the individual and the referent group, regarding the influential strength of perceived norms on behaviours. It also identifies early adolescence as a period of uncertainty regarding injunctive norms (for both close friends and parents), and therefore a period of increased vulnerability to normative influences. Qualitative findings showing subtle changes through time in terms of a growing perception of an indirect pressure to drink; perceptions of inconsistency regarding parental and adult disapproval; a shift towards independence in their decisions to drink; and increasing exposure to peer drinking at discos and via social media. The integration of quantitative and qualitative findings broadens our understanding of the development and trajectory of alcohol-related cognitions during early and mid-adolescence.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland