FRIDAY, Jan. 4, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Two out of five American children between the ages of 8 and 10 have already taken a few sips of alcohol, a new study shows.
However, one in three parents whose child reported having tasted alcohol was unaware that their youngster had done so, the researchers noted.
The number of 8-to-10-year-olds who've downed a whole drink are much lower, however.
"Nearly 40 percent of children aged 8 to 10 have sipped or tasted alcohol, whereas only 6 percent have ever had a drink of alcohol," corresponding author John E. Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a prepared statement.
Previous research on alcohol use among children has focused on older children involved in heavier drinking than just a taste or sip, the researchers noted. Surveys tend to ask when a child has taken "more than a few sips," thereby excluding children who have only sampled, they said.
In their study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan conducted a phone survey with a random sample of 452 children (214 boys, 238 girls), aged 8 or 10, and their families. The researchers asked the children about their experiences sipping or tasting alcohol and their perspective on their parents' behavior and beliefs about alcohol. The researchers then interviewed the parents separately.
"If one only asked about drinks, one would have the impression that few children at these ages have had experience with alcohol, whereas the reality is that nearly seven times as many have had some experience," Donovan said. "Second, alcohol is most often sipped by children in the family context or during religious services, and almost never with friends or when alone. Third, children in families in which the parents drink are at greater risk for having sipped or tasted alcohol as young as age eight or 10."
Children do seem to follow by example, the study author added. "Children whose parents drink more frequently are at higher risk of having had a sip or taste of alcohol," Donovan said. "Surprisingly, it appears that much of this greater risk is not due to parents having offered the children alcohol: A third of the mothers and half of the fathers whose children have sipped alcohol are not aware of it."
The researchers said the results imply that children's drinking behavior is learned from their observation of their parents drinking, although Donovan pointed out that beer commercials, alcohol ads and TV characters who drink may also play a role.
The researchers also noted that sipping or tasting alcohol at a young age is not correlated with other problem behaviors.
Writing in the January issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the researchers stated that this is the first in a series of studies planned for this group of families, with the intent of exploring the way in which family attitudes and drinking behavior may affect children's choices.
To learn more about alcohol abuse, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.