Anyone who has attended or worked at a summer camp knows the experience transcends that offered by the mere existence of soccer balls, tennis courts, or sailboats. Camps are communities—villages really, and at their best maybe more.
Folklore, common sense, and even recent research on resiliency suggest that children thrive best in environments rich with structure, supervision, and the guidance of caring adults. Like neighborhoods of yesteryear, summer camps foster a collective responsibility to and accountability for all the children, not just those living in a particular cabin or learning a certain skill.
Building on the nuclear family, camp counselors pick up where parents leave off—nurturing healthy exploration, achievement, self-reliance, and respect for oneself, for others, and for the community at large. Many of these same tenets have found their way into the prevention principles that ground important efforts to keep youth alcohol-free, suggesting a mutuality of interest and impact between camp programs and those designed to keep young people, particularly teens, safe and alive.
Indeed, camps can play a pivotal role in reinforcing and even establishing expectations regarding the advisability and acceptability of underage drinking.
A report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility) sounds the alarm on an epidemic of youth and alcohol. So, too, does Teens Today research from SADD and Liberty Mutual Group:
- Drinking increases significantly between the sixth and seventh grades.
- The average age for teens to start drinking is thirteen years old.
- By twelfth grade, more than three in four teens are drinking.
Unfortunately, many young people fall prey to the Myth of Invincibility, believing that there are no real or lasting effects of alcohol use. They're wrong:
- The younger a child is when he or she starts to drink, the higher the chances he or she will have alcohol-related problems later in life.
- Alcohol use by teens affects still-developing cognitive abilities and impairs memory
- Teens that drink are more likely to commit or be the victim of violence (including sexual assault) and to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.
- Alcohol-related automobile crashes kill thousands of teens each year and injure millions more.
In turn, many of the important adults in teens' lives may also subscribe to the Myth of Inevitability—convinced that drinking is a rite of passage for youth and that there's not much they can do to influence a young person's choices. They're wrong, too:
- More than a third of middle and high school students say they have not consumed alcohol.
- Adults who talk with teens about underage drinking, set expectations, and enforce consequences can discourage experimentation with alcohol. (This influence holds true for other teen behaviors as well, such as drug use and early sexual activity.)
- Young people say they want guidance in making decisions about personal behavior, including alcohol use.
Although alcohol consumption is often perceived as less of a concern among anti-drug efforts, underage drinking clearly remains a substantial threat. Indeed, the National Academies' report estimates the annual cost to be $53 billion in losses from traffic deaths, violent crime, and other destructive behavior . . . to say nothing of the damage to mental health, school performance, and relationships with parents and peers. It is past time to reconcile the forces of indifference and indulgence that perpetuate underage drinking with the urgent need to protect children.
The report calls for a series of steps it suggests will change the face of "normative" behavior when it comes to adolescents and alcohol. In the spirit of "it takes a village," it also serves up a strategy suggesting the participation of almost all segments of society. With the camp industry's extraordinary capacity to "reach" youth, summer camps should be no exception.
Perhaps most significant, the report suggests an array of youth-oriented interventions aimed not only at increasing self-esteem or decreasing peer pressure, but also at activities that educate, intervene, and enforce. However, making those efforts effective requires a close examination of the factors that influence young people to drink in the first place.
Not surprisingly, some teens say they drink to have fun, fit in, or just to do what their friends seem to be doing, but engaging in destructive behaviors is not just about "having a good time." Many teens, particularly older ones, drink to escape problems. Left unaddressed, those problems can pose a significant risk to healthy social and emotional development. So, too, does a lack of experience in solving them.
The data also indicates other key drivers of decisions about alcohol, including depression, anxiety, stress, and boredom; a desire to feel grown up and to take risks; a fear of getting caught; and the influence of parents, friends, and siblings. So what does this tell us? That there are practical approaches camp counselors can take to reduce the likelihood that young people will turn to alcohol.
- Monitor campers' emotional health—and intervene at signs of trouble. Anxiety, and its close cousin depression, correlates highly with alcohol use. So does boredom . . . so find things for teens to do that both stimulate and challenge.
- Help teens achieve their goals. They want to be successful, to grow up, and to take risks. Channel that risk-taking tendency toward activities that enhance healthy socialization with peers and positive feelings about themselves. Also, take time to point out ways in which alcohol use can interfere with success in academics and athletics.
- Establish (and enforce) consequences for bad behavior. Young people need clear boundaries and appreciate adults who care enough to patrol them.
- Be a good role model. Not surprisingly, Teens Today research revealed that students in grades six through twelve report that those they are close to are most influential in their decisions not to drink.
Most importantly: communicate. Young people who have caring adults willing to take the time to talk with them about underage drinking benefit from hearing about the risks associated with alcohol use and strategies to avoid it.
Unfortunately, too many influential role models send too many messages that encourage or enable underage drinking, while many others simply expect or ignore it. Agreeing to disagree about this important issue obscures an alarming indifference about youth and alcohol. But it does nothing to keep teens safe and alive. Not until society speaks with one, clear, unambiguous voice about the perils of underage drinking, as the National Academies' report suggests, will it successfully shatter the myths of invincibility and inevitability that propel it.
Our highways and hospitals are lined with young people who made poor, even fatal, choices about alcohol. Still many more suffer silently, unable to meet their own life goals or to realize the promise their friends, parents, and other caring adults see in them. Understanding teen drinking readies deployment of the many people needed to prevent it, including camp counselors. As the ancient African proverb teaches, it will take a village. Maybe more.
Stephen G. Wallace, M.S. Ed., has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about SADD or the Teens Today research visit www.sadd.org.
Summit Communications Management Corporation • 2006 All Rights Reserved
Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.