Girls in the United States are more likely to take their first full alcoholic drink at a younger age than boys, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU), looked at data from 12 years of national drug and alcohol use surveys, focusing on 12- to 24-year-olds. Most public health concern and education has centered on underage drinking by boys, but the data showed that girls actually begin drinking earlier in life – a risk factor for subsequent alcohol problems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“This new evidence from the United States shows that the so-called ‘gender gap’ in risk of becoming a drinker has narrowed to the point of there being no gap at all,” MSU researchers concluded. “Indeed, in mid-adolescence, risk of starting to drink is greater for females than for males.”
Hui Cheng, the MSU study’s lead researcher, said in a press release that many factors could play in to why girls are more likely to start drinking earlier.
“Changing social norms related to gender equality could be playing into their decision,” Cheng said. “Girls may be feeling that they now have more equal status among their male peers.”
Dr. Rhoda Gottfried, an Advocate Medical Group child/adolescent psychiatrist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill., thinks that biology and mental health might play roles.
“My initial thought is that since girls are reaching puberty earlier – at historically young ages – they might be more likely to have social encounters with older males than their male peers would with older females,” she says. “Also, depression and anxiety disorders are more common in females, and this probably increases the risk of alcohol experimentation.”
The study’s authors indicate that more research is needed to determine why girls are beginning to drink at a younger age.
“These are all things that need to be looked at next, as well as how we can make prevention programs more widespread for girls,” said Cheng.