Boys twice as likely to visit the emergency room over Fourth of July

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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It’s upon us right around the corner – the Fourth of July weekend. Independence Day is traditionally celebrated with parades, barbecues and, unfortunately, too much drinking. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, reports today that underage boys are twice as likely to visit the ER for alcohol-related causes as on any other day of the year – except New Year’s Day, of course.

Researchers analyzed national government statistics from 2009, and found that American ERs saw a daily average of 942 visits related to underage drinking throughout the holiday weekend of July 3-5 2009. Two-thirds of those visits were made by boys.

The visits were due to serious consequences of drinking- primarily alcohol poisoning, drunk driving accidents and physical fights resulting from lowered inhibitions. All are potentially life-threatening, so it is alarming to see these statistics for minors.

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The study was not specific about age ranges, but it is probably safe to assume that the underage label refers primarily to those under 21. This would mean the majority would still be in their teens, a volatile and vulnerable period for the development of sound judgment and forethought, most of which is not yet fully formed at that age. Notwithstanding the immediate injuries, it is frightening to consider the long-term effects underage binge drinking has on the developing brains and bodies of teen boys.

Dr. Pete Delaney, director of the Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality at SAMHSA, urges parents to talk to their children about drug and alcohol consumption, and cautions that the talks should be ongoing and not a one-time lecture. Other experts in the field say parents are a critical piece of the puzzle, along with teachers, pastors, and other community leaders.

Parents are absolutely critical to the improved statistics on underage boys’ drinking, but perhaps not in the way Dr. Delany recommends. The fact that emergency rooms did not see a spike in underage girls during the Independence Day weekend points to the fact that unlike teen boys, teen girls do not face the same social norms in celebrating the holiday. Teen boys model their behavior on the male culture around them – they either copy behavior of other male family members, or conform to the peer pressure of other young men in their social circles. And all those young men picked up their drinking behavior from some other, older male as well.

The topic is admittedly complex, but it is undeniable that celebrating the Fourth of July by excessive drinking is deeply culturally ingrained. Human beings do seem to have a natural propensity to celebrate big events with noise and intoxication, and that tradition goes back probably as far back as human history itself. Back in Babylon circa 1100 BC, the New Year was heralded by a 12-day period of chaos and intoxication, so at least we have scaled back the duration of the festivities.

Scaling back on the intensity of the intoxication would also be invaluable, but it is up to the older generation to begin modeling behavior and a mode of celebration that is radically different from the currently one considered “fun.” The likelihood of this happening is not very great. Drinking is a deeply entrenched societal habit, and a means of relieving tension and stress – particularly by males who often are not given alternate emotional coping skills while growing up.

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