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Network News Nannies: NBC Scolds Parents over Teen Drinking
May 20, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
NBC's Dateline doesn't advance the debate on alcholol abuse

Recently, a brutally violent alcohol-fueled high school hazing by girls on a Chicago football team got national media attention thanks to a videotape made by one of the participants.

Dateline NBC decided to investigate, As correspondent Rob Stafford intoned:
"So how do these under-aged kids get beer when it's illegal in every state for anyone under 21 to buy or drink alcohol? And why aren't these kids worried about breaking the law in a public park in broad daylight?"
The scary possibility: they might have gotten the stuff from their parents, who aren't politically correct enough to know that teen drinking is always dangerous.

Nowhere in the story does Dateline mention that by 18, according to national statistics, more than half of students report having drunk alcohol in the last month and over 80 percent have tried it at least once. But few engage in brutal violence like those shown on tape.

Here's a taste of the show's moralistic tone:

STAFFORD (Voiceover): Some parents remember their own adolescent drinking. Harrison (a counselor) says these now successful adults with good jobs and incomes wonder how harmful can it be?

(Excerpts from video of students drinking)

Ms. HARRISON: Many people our age and younger who - who used alcohol and drugs in college and in young adulthood, and it didn't seem to have any deleterious effect - and they're doing OK, and they were able to stop. They kind of grew out of it, and they see it almost as a right of passage.

STAFFORD (Voiceover): The problem with this kind of thinking, according to Harrison, is that mixing alcohol with even a small group of kids can be dangerous. Add 100 pumped-up teen-agers, it can be explosive.

The report simply accepts the counselor's conjectures as fact. It doesn't consider the possibility that the silent majority of parents' view of teen drinking in itself as relatively harmless could be correct. It doesn't note that as the Chicago Tribune reported, the event had been held in numerous past years with heavy drinking without incident.

Nor does Dateline stop to ask: As 80% of kids drink by 18, maybe stamping it out is impossible and supervising it would be a better way to prevent things from getting out of hand? Perhaps the problem here is not alcohol plus kids, but alcohol plus kids without adults. Data on cultures in which children are taught to handle alcohol by drinking at home with their families from a young age suggests that this alternative view has some truth in it.

But instead of questioning conventional wisdom, reporting like this simply offers a lecture: Bad parents! Bad kids! Until the news nannies see their job description as offering a variety of perspectives and hard data on the prevalence of alcohol-related problems and the connections between them, the real debate on how to deal with teen drinking cannot occur and many potentially effective solutions will remain unknown.

 


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