We’re surprised that underage drinking is happening, which I find interesting and funny because we definitely promoted it –– it’s one of our core values. –Ben Bolanos
Three weeks into the school year, the number of Paly parties is already in the double digits. There’s a reason high school parties are such a cliché; all events revolve around alcohol –– socializing, games and the courage to dance.
Underage drinking is prevalent for students all over the nation, and Paly is no exception — according to the results of the California Healthy Kids Survey from the 2019-2020 school year, 19% of 9th graders and 43% of 11th graders at Paly had drank alcohol at least once in their life.
Societal pressure, parent-child relationships, mental health and biochemical reasons all influence underage drinking. High school is a time when teenagers become more independent and mature, and it can lead to different behaviors around drinking, depending on where and how they were raised.
Hungover through history
Drinking has been present in the United States since the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Because the ship’s beer supply was running low, sailors were worried they were going to run out before reaching England, so they reduced the passenger load by kicking the pilgrims off the boat.
Beer was such a significant aspect of life at the time that former Governor of the Plymouth Colony William Bradford wrote about it in his diary in the winter of 1620.
“It has been another long and thirsty day here at the Plymouth Colony,” Bradford wrote. “How I long for the cool, sweet feeling of a droplet of beer rolling down my parched throat.”
Alcohol has seemingly been a controversial issue since its introduction in American culture. George Washington bought votes by providing 144 gallons of alcohol, winning a Virginia House of Burgesses seat, according to the National Archives.
While bemoaning alcohol as “the ruin of half the workmen in this country,” Washington again used alcohol to bribe Americans, this time providing whiskey and beer from his various distilleries to keep his troops happy.
While hypocritical, Washington was not all wrong, according to U.S. Government and History teacher Steven Foug.
“Through the 1700s and 1800s alcohol consumption was really high, people drank a lot,” Foug said. “And the alcohol consumption basically kept rising as the decades went on.”
By the 1770s, colonists drank an average of three and a half gallons of alcohol yearly, according to JSTOR Daily. But by 1830, that number had doubled for colonists over the age of 15.
Part of the reason for this massive amount of alcohol consumption was for health reasons, Foug said.
“Access to clean water was limited, and the process of making alcohol kills germs, so people drank with breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Foug said.
Drinking became more accessible and more prevalent throughout the 1800s. After working in the factories, immi- grants would head to saloons, and the women-led temperance movement grew in strength as the century progressed.
“This movement was fueled by women with drunken husbands, with broken homes, child abuse, and suffering that they linked to alcohol,” Foug said. “And this led to the temperance and suffrage movements being super intertwined.”
In January of 1920, the 18th Amendment was passed, banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. This amendment was not ratified until 1933, and these years became known as the era of Prohibition.
Underground trading and speakeasies flourished and became the phase of the day, as did organized crime.
“A lot of people call prohibition a failure, but if you look at it from a larger perspective, I think it worked out pretty well,” Foug said. “The amount of general alcohol consumption in the population before and after prohibition plummeted and didn’t return to its prior levels until the ‘60s.”
In the 1970s, the minimum legal drinking age was lowered, and alcohol was all the rage. In 1971, Congress ratified the 26th Amendment, which changed the voting age to 18 and combined with the military draft age of 18, it was reasoned one could also drink alcohol. By 1975, 21 states had lowered their drinking age to either 18, 19 or 20 years old.
The film industry displayed the drinking culture of the 1970s with movies such as Dazed and Confused. The film follows a group of teenagers from 1976 who drink alcohol and smoke marijuana, while hazing, partying and escaping from the police.
But the drinking culture of the ‘70s changed quickly after drinking and driving related accidents increased. Young people would drive into states with a lower drinking age, drink legally, and then crash their car while returning home.
These accidents led to advocacy groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was formed in 1980. Eventually these movements led to Congress passing the National Mini- mum Drinking Age Act in 1984 which required all states to raise their MLDA to 21.
Beers and brains
Wellness outreach worker Whitney Aquino said the relationship between alcohol and mental health has a positive feedback loop; teenagers who struggle with mental health will turn to drinking as a coping mechanism, while drinking can further increase mental health hardships. Aquino said alcohol impacts students’ mental health because it is a depressant.
“It’s not just physically that it can be depressing, but emotionally something that can impact our brain chemistry and make us feel worse rather than make us feel better,” Aquino said.
She said when teenagers drink as an outlet for their mental health struggles, they are often using alcohol as a way of forgetting bad feelings or as a distraction when they’re in social settings or alone.
“Some people might utilize it when they don’t have all the other coping skills to manage their emotions in different ways,” Aquino said. “It ends up creating a cycle of ‘Let me drink so that I can feel better, but I am drinking so much that I don’t feel good or I am doing things that I’ll regret when I wake up the next day feeling really bad.’”
And Aquino said drinking can also lead to poor mental health because people will often try to chase the good feelings they experienced from their first drink.
“People use substances for a reason,” Aquino said. “That’s because initially that feeling makes them feel good –– there’s no secret that drugs make people feel good –– but the thing is there’s a lot of consequences that come with utilizing the drug that are more grave than the initial feel good feeling.”
Stanford University neurobiology professor Dr. Jennifer Raymond said the enjoyable feelings caused by alcohol use come from the brain’s production of dopamine, stimulated by alcohol use.
“Dopamine is critical for motivation,” Raymond said. “It drives behavior, but the more you get of the dopamine, the receptors are down regulated. So then it becomes harder to get that satisfaction because for the same amount of dopamine, you don’t get as much of a response.”
This relationship means it takes more alcohol to achieve a pleasurable response, Raymond said, which ultimately leads to more drinking.
Raymond also said there are neural consequences to drinking, especially in relation to the brain’s repair mechanisms. Rather than repairing a damaged area, the brain finds new pathways to compensate for the injury. However, the brain will eventually reach a point where it can no longer compensate.
“If there’s a little damage, you’ll probably do fine. You won’t notice it, but as it accumulates. You drink. You lose a couple of neurons. Your brain changes,” Raymond said. “You can still do fine, but if you do it again and again, the cumulative effect is really bad.”
Alcohol also affects brain development, in particular, the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive function, she said. Underage drinking is especially impactful because the cortex is still developing into the mid-20s, and therefore more vulnerable to injuries from alcohol use.
“If the brain is not able to function properly because of excessive use of alcohol, there’s pretty good evidence that it never develops,” Raymond said. “Data suggests that teens who are heavy users of alcohol are lacking in that executive function for the rest of their life because they missed that window.”
Mezcal for minors
Parties are frequent at Paly, especially with its upperclassmen population, and the presence of alcohol can often change their dynamic. Last summer, when a current Paly senior, who will be kept anonymous for their privacy, hosted a party, they didn’t expect their house to be overrun by uninvited guests.
“In the summer, I threw a house party and a lot more people than I was expecting showed up,” they said. “A lot of people that I didn’t know and a lot of people in the grade above us came. It was around 150 people total, maybe a little bit more. So it was really big and people brought their own (alcohol) and it just got pretty wild –– a table got broken in my backyard and all the carpets had to be professionally cleaned.”
They said their guests’ alcohol directly led to the damage they left on their house.
“The more people drink the less common sense they have,” they said. “And so (at my party) people were standing on tables and jumping on them. The drunker people get, the more it’s going to spill, and that’s how the carpets got ruined.”
The Paly senior said the parties they’ve experienced can have an extremely tense environment. Because of the limited amount of alcohol teens can obtain, it often ends up being a competition for who gets it.
“Whenever there’s alcohol (at) any party, it’s gone in two seconds,” they said. “Everyone goes out like rats –– they get so intense. It goes so fast, everyone’s so obsessed.”
Yet, they said parties can also bring people together.
“I’ve definitely met a lot of new people at parties, and I’ve definitely made a lot of new friends,” they said. “And there’s parties with most of the grade where a lot of people show up, and I think that that’s fun because it’s so inclusive.”
High school parties aren’t all fun though. They said the parties can also become an unsafe environment.
“They can get dangerous,” the senior said. “There was one in San Jose where someone got shot and there was another one in Santa Clara where someone got stabbed. They can get really dangerous, really fast.”
Despite the dangers that can be brought on by underage drinking, Paly’s drinking culture has created a support system that ensures everyone receives a safe ride home after gatherings or parties.
“When people do drink, I think it’s really cool that there will be other people who step in,” senior Anika Chang said. “After events, after gatherings, after parties, there’s always people who make sure that you have a safe ride home.”
In general, Paly students take drinking and driving seriously, she said.
“From my experience, high school students are actually pretty responsible about driving and designated drivers,” Chang said. “If you’re the driver, you have other people’s lives in your hands so you make sure to abstain from drinking.”
Paly sociology teacher Ben Bolanos said there are many factors associated with underage drinking, including the yearn to feel included and to fit in.
“If most of your friends are drinking and you want to have that social connection, then you yourself will partake in those things, so you can have some connection with other people,” Bolanos said.
He personally believes that underage drinking is a part of becoming mature and teenage years.
“I see underage drinking as a way of being independent, a way of being grown up, even though it may not be the correct way,” Bolanos said.
Underage drinking is also influenced by culture because we, as society, have glamorized the idea of it, he said, especially since drinking is considered to be a masculine act –– we drink beer while watching football and go to tailgates prior to sporting events.
“It’s embedded in our culture,” Bolanos said. “We’re surprised that underage drinking is happening which I find interesting and funny because we definitely promoted it –– it’s one of our core values, even though we don’t call it a core value.”
As a significant part of our culture, alcohol is seen everywhere.
“It’s connected to how we watch sports. We have pubs and bars. We see the way it’s portrayed in TV shows where drinking is happening as a fun thing, as a comedic thing. It creates this whole mystique about it, when it’s really just part of everyday life.”
When discussing underage drinking, Bolanos brought to light the disparities of society’s view on underage versus of-age drinking.
“We’re actually calling into question the rules of society –– what is right and what is wrong,” Bolanos said. “Every form of deviance or rebellion is in some ways connected to pointing out an inequality. In our society, there’s a power dynamic –– adults can drink, but teenagers can’t.”
Jägermeister in Europe
Palo Alto resident and Danish native Nana Chancellor said she sees major differences between the culture of drinking in the US and other countries, especially European ones. Chancellor said this is because of different laws in each country.
“There’s really no drinking age for drinking at home (in Denmark). If your parents are OK with it, that’s at their discretion,” Chancellor said. “You see teenagers at a younger age having a beer or a glass of wine, which sort of demystifies the whole thing a little bit. That’s how I grew up, so that’s what feels comfortable to me.”
In Denmark, the minimum legal age to purchase alcohol in a store is 16 years old and 18 years old at a bar and restaurant. Any beverage with an alcohol percentage greater than 16.5% can only be bought by someone 18 years or older, but in the US, the legal drinking age for any alcoholic beverage is 21.
Additionally, Chancellor said someone in Denmark only needs to show ID when going to a bar or club and not when purchasing alcohol.
“The alcohol restrictions are so lax (in Denmark), that I don’t know of anyone who’s ever been carded because you could also be buying alcohol for your parents,” Chancellor said.
She said the secrecy aspect of underage drinking in the US, where many teens try to hide their alcohol use from their parents, ultimately leads to unsafe situations where families are unaware of what’s occurring with their children.
“Because it is legal and because every parent I have ever met (in Denmark) is OK with their teenager drinking, there’s no secrecy to it,” Chancellor said. “To me it feels safer because it’s open and it’s talked about.”
Senior Apolline Marabelle, who recently moved to Palo Alto from France said the parent-child-alcohol relationship in her home country is similar to that of Denmark.
“Since drinking in France is more common and parents, in general, are more chill about it, it’s not a rebellious thing to drink,” Marabelle said. “If you have a bad relationship with your parents, you wouldn’t drink to make them angry because it’s not viewed as a bad thing.”
Since drinking is not looked at negatively in France, Marabelle said it’s common for relatives to offer young people wine at family dinners, especially when an aspect of the drinking culture in France is to learn how to enjoy alcoholic beverages.
“You learn how to appreciate a good wine or champagne,” Marabelle said. “You don’t drink alcohol every time, even if there is some at a party. Since there is alcohol anywhere and anytime you want, there’s not the urge to go to it every time.”