Rural teenagers drink more than their urban counterparts. But it's not because there's nothing else to do in the countryside, according to a new study. Instead, rural teens drink more when they feel their community doesn't support them.
The findings suggest that for rural kids, positive influences spread far beyond the immediate family, researchers said.
"If the community was supportive, and adolescents perceived that the adults in their community cared about them and worked hard to provide activities for them, if they felt safe in their community, they drank a lot less," study researcher Laura DeHaan, a psychology professor at Calvin College in Michigan, told LiveScience.
The study looked at 1,425 sixth- to eighth-graders living in communities with fewer than 2,500 residents in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Wisconsin. The states were chosen because of their high rates of teen drinking (higher than those found in cities). The researchers surveyed students from 22 randomly selected middle schools on their feelings about their town, their peers and their families, and asked them whether they had ever tried alcohol and whether they had had a drink in the past month.
The researchers also collected census data on the economics and demographics of the communities and interviewed parents, school teachers and community leaders such as police officers, politicians and owners of teen hangouts.
The researchers found a tremendous variety in teen drinking even in very similar communities. The percentage of middle-schoolers who had imbibed in the past month ranged from 21 percent in some towns to 69 percent in others, suggesting that high teen-drinking rates in rural areas are about more than just the country-city split.
The number of activities teens felt were open to them wasn't related to how much they drank, the researchers report in the October issue of the Journal of Early Adolescence. But teens' perception of how much the adults in their community cared about them did matter. Each perceived increase in community support (indicated by a unit change from the average) reported by the teenagers decreased the chances that a kid had tried alcohol by 20 percent.
The findings also illustrated the complexity of the relationship between economic hardship and drinking, researchers said. The poorer the community, the more likely teens were to drink. But it was the relatively affluent kids in those towns who drank the most, perhaps because they're more able to afford the booze.
The kids' responses suggested that it's not boredom that drives them to the bottle. Rather, teenagers seem to have some of the same motivations for drinking as adults. The more stressed the teen, the more likely he or she was to drink, DeHaan said.
The findings should encourage small towns to reach out to their youth, DeHaan said, especially since people who start drinking in middle school are much more likely to have alcohol problems later in life than people who start drinking at a later age.
"[Communities] really can influence and reduce early drinking by providing a community where the adolescents grow up feeling like the adults care about them," she said. "It was at least as powerful as a predictor as the relationship that they had with their parent."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.