My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Dionysus and the Amethyst Initiative

Across the United States, dozens of higher education leaders have signed on to the Amethyst Initiative. It’s a fascinating approach. The signers aren’t committing to a stance, but rather asking American society to begin an informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old-drinking age. It’s a controversial topic and it hit the airwaves in controversial style. Merely trying to cover the story touched a nerve across the country and countless media channels dedicated air time to the debate, if only to dismiss the initiative. Still, a conversation began.

In 1984, the United States passed a bill that required States to institute a 21 minimum drinking age in order to receive full federal highway funds. Many States had age limits before this, but this bill effectively federalized a drinking age and restricted alcohol purchasing to those 21+. The drinking age has a long and sordid history, wrapped up with Prohibition, moral reform, and age consciousness.

Anyone who tries to tell you that something magical happens for everyone at the age of 21 that makes youth brains capable of moderate consumption at that age is full of shit. The drinking age is not about psychology, no matter how many reports appear to “prove” otherwise. The drinking age is first and foremost about social control. We tried to prohibit everyone from drinking and when that failed, we went about trying to oppress the population that could be controlled. Like all other acts of Prohibition in this country, the minimum drinking age stems from a set of moral values projected onto a population as a means of control.

While the age limit is about social control, there is no doubt that alcohol is a dangerous drug. The chemical effect can damage the body in all sorts of ways and alcoholism is a very real addiction with costly repercussions. Binge drinking can be deadly and, even when it’s not, it can cause severe long-term damage. Alcohol doesn’t just affect the imbiber – alcohol affects everyone around the drinker. Drunk driving is a leading cause of death, alcohol destroys families, and a large percentage of domestic violence incidents involve alcohol. Alcohol abuse is linked to depression, poverty, violence, health problems, and all sorts of societal “ills.” Alcohol is one of the most dangerous and most abused substances out there. That said, people like it.

Let’s assume that the age-limit prohibitionists meant well since most moral reformers do (especially when the law runs counter to economic profitability). Even laws passed with the best of intentions can result in dire side effects. The Minimum Drinking Age is one of those laws. Like other abstinence approaches, this law set in motion a series of social and cultural factors that actually magnifies abusive acts. I want to briefly map out some factors at play and then discuss how the combination of them is outright deadly.

1) Alcohol is a marker of status. Youth desire adult vices because they desire the status and freedom that they symbolize. The more that adults tell youth that they are not old enough or mature enough to imbibe (… have sex, drive, stay out past midnight, etc.), the more imbibing becomes a desirable act. So long as alcohol is seen as a status symbol of maturity, it is consumed in excess by those seeking any means of being validated as mature. The harder it is to get, the more status it confers.

2) Moderation of enjoyable and high status activities must be learned. Humans naturally moderate (a.k.a. avoid) unpleasant experiences but they also naturally seek out pleasant ones. For many, alcohol consumption is enjoyable. To complicate matters, risk taking and the status that it affords is desirable. Illegal alcohol consumption combines these two elements. It is naturally pleasurable and excessive use of hard-to-obtain substances affords status in many circles. Moderation runs counter to this. Moderation is typically learned through personal exposure to the unpleasantries of alcohol or the shift in its status amongst a person’s social circle.

3) Age segregation makes learning to moderate harder. Age segregation means that status is conferred locally. Each new cohort goes through the ropes of alcohol consumption with few guides who have learned the costs and side effects. More problematically, age segregation means that status is local. Youth validate each other’s consumption as a marker of adulthood and there aren’t adults who have gone through the hells of abuse to curb the status structures. Thus, youth are socialized into a culture where massive consumption is highly regarded.

4) Abstinence programs make education and guidance impossible. We know that youth start drinking in high school, but there’s a general “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset at play. Schools that provide quality information are viewed as “encouraging” bad behaviors. Instead, schools are required to tell students of the horrors of alcohol while youth are simultaneously witnessing adult consumption. The hypocrisy of these messages is well recognized and youth end up dismissing all of the abstinence material as inaccurate.

University settings are by-far the worst configuration possible for this dynamic. Youth leave home, attaining one marker of adulthood, only to find an age-segregated social world with pressures to live up to the images of “cool” adulthood set in motion by mass media. They are no longer accountable to their parents and they desperately want to be validated by their peers. Universities are discouraged from educating underage students about alcohol and so there’s tremendous amounts of winking taking place in lieu of proper dialogue. Abuse runs rampant and is further magnified by the status that it affords from being risky in an age segregated community. Underage drinkers drink in private where their intake is not monitored rather than drinking in age-mixed public spaces where social pressures discourage genuine abuse. Youth aren’t socialized into drinking like adults, but rather drinking like media’s image of adults. Youth are afraid to seek help when they’ve gone too far because what they’re doing is illegal. Talk about a recipe for disaster.

Yes, youth make dumb decisions. But so do adults. Alcohol abuse is not just a problem for youth; millions of adults have problems with alcohol. Many adults with problems developed their habits as youth where their consumption was underground. They never had someone guiding them and no one ever realized that they had gone too far… until much later. The brain is like a power law – it grows most rapidly in the womb and slows as we get older. There is no magic age where it stops learning, but learning does get harder. Youth habits die hard, but lessons learned in youth also stick stronger. Holding off the possibility for abuse is certainly desirable, but if it means the difference between slowly ramping up and going from 0 to 60 in under a second, guess which is more likely to result in an accident?

I’m glad to see a debate raging on this topic. I think that it’s absolutely critical. My research with youth has led me to believe that the 21-minimum is deadly. I think that it encourages greater abuse than other scenarios. If I were given a magic wand to change the laws regarding alcohol, here’s what I would do:

1) Children may drink alcohol in private residences at any age when their parent or guardian is present.

2) Youth may apply for an alcohol permit starting at the age of 16. A mandatory education course and test (perhaps online) is required for getting this ID. With this ID, youth 16-17 can purchase alcohol in public when accompanied by an adult 21+ and those 18-20 can purchase alcohol in public by themselves.

3) No one under-21 can drive with even one iota of alcohol in their system. Consequences include fine, community service, permanent loss of alcohol permit, and multiple year license suspension.

Will this make alcohol abuse go away? No. That said, I believe that it would drastically reduce it. Changing the laws in this way will encourage parents to actually begin conversations about alcohol with their children rather than avoid the topic. I feel as though such an approach would mean that youth ease into alcohol and learn its limits while in an environment with older adults. By the time that youth hit college, alcohol would not hold the same level of allure. It would not be a marker of freedom in the same way. It would allow educational approaches to come into play. And it would allow what is underground to come above ground and reach a healthier state.

I know that many folks out there support reducing the age limit because, well, “they do it anyhow.” There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of underage drinking going on, but this isn’t just about legitimizing what is. We need to build safety structures in place, structures that allow youth to come of age in a healthy way. That’s not what exists right now. Thus, when youth head off to college, they drink their freedom to excess and the damage is palpable. If we’re going to curb that, we need to be more honest with ourselves about where alcohol stands in the cultural consciousness. We need to realize that you don’t learn to drink from a tap when all you know is a fire hydrant. And we need to recognize that imparting knowledge is more effective through socialization than pamphlets.

The Ancient Greeks believed that the amethyst quartz would prevent intoxication. The goddesses stepped in to help Amethystos ward off the intoxicated Dionysus. It is now our time to step in and help create structures that help youth have a healthy relationship with an otherwise unhealthy substance.

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15 comments to Dionysus and the Amethyst Initiative

  • Danah:

    I think it is a very informative essay. Saying that, I think the remedy is not well thought out. You give a single reasoning for alcohol abuse, and the remedy seems not to reduce that reasoning but potentially augment it. For an example, you are also bringing in age limits for certain actions but you are also introducing inequality among youth, i.e., different youths have different types of parents. So you did not take away the main problem but introduced another one, inequality.

    You give the reasoning that by putting an age limit, consuming alcohol has a sex appeal,a fashion statement or what not. Which would have more sex appeal. A status which I supposed to earn by aging, a uniform process? Or a status which I supposed to earn either by passing an exam or by having liberal parents? I believe a status which signify inequality brings more peer pressure. I remember driving in school age. I learned driving a bit earlier than my peers. It gave me a lot of status.

    I think a fact of about alcohol is that it is an attractive drug. The more you consume the more you like to consume. This is a positive feedback loop. You need to have a certain maturity to protect yourself from this loop. You need a certain maturity. I agree that different people get maturity at different stages of their lives. These are subjective stages and not observable to law. So the law must put an objective criteria, just like the criteria on child booster seat laws.

    So is there any objective criteria you could suggest which is more robust than age? May be education? Since different kids in a peer group becomes 21 at different times, may be one relaxation of the law could be that if you reach this class, you could start drinking.

    On principle ground, I agree with your suggestion that parents should be allowed to permit and monitor the drinking of their children. Because, parents should have a right to make some decision about their children. But not all parents are equally caring or even smart. So you do want to protect the nation kids by taking away certain parental rights or introducing certain parental duties. For an example, sending kids to schools or otherwise teaching them basic education is a law.

    I am not suggesting, I do not agree with your essay. I am suggesting that I did not see many evidences to convince myself. Could there be control experiments to verify whether your remedies would be helpful? May be the law makers could approve doing a study in a univeristy, a school, or a community before scaling things nationwide.

    (Disclaimer: I have never consumed alcohol, except in medicines or food flavoring such as ice-cream or coffee.)

  • Having moved from a country where the drinking age was 18 to the US a few months after my 21st birthday, I can confirm that the differences in attitudes towards alcohol are pretty striking. In particular, I think the biggest thing I missed was alcohol being viewed as *part* of the evening instead of the *point* of the evening.

    I have to say, I disagree with the strict 0 tolerance approach towards drinking and driving though. Minor, incidental alcohol consumption can sometimes be hard to conveniently avoid. Wine based sauces, Rum cakes, even mouthwash can all fall afoul of strict 0.0 laws. I think 0.02 or somewhere around there is a much saner compromise.

  • “I think a fact of about alcohol is that it is an attractive drug. The more you consume the more you like to consume. This is a positive feedback loop. You need to have a certain maturity to protect yourself from this loop.”

    I would say maturity coupled with a culture of drinking. Some great brands of whiskey, beer and wine come from the US and I think more and more Americans realize that it is not just about consuming, but also, appreciating.

    I can see that kind of appreciation starting much easier at a younger age in a familiar/family setting than restricting it to a later age and bringing in either all the connotations of being a ‘connoisseur’ of ie. fine wine on one side or the other extreme, drinking awful, cheap, and worse, warm beer in college rooms. There should be a middle way. Having a glass -or two- of wine along lunch is certainly not drug abuse and nothing of a loop there. Is enough alcohol to induce a nice siesta, more of it, would just make me drunk, dizzy and left with a hangover throughout afternoon. How do I know that? We ‘ve been drinking like this at home since I was a kid, and ok it was not even half a glass of wine back then, but you kind of grow up like this.

    I do think you -and everyone- is absolutely right to demand more maturity. But demanding maturity at an earlier age can only be a good thing. Developing a culture of drinking along is even better.

  • Indeed. The attitudes towards drinking in the US are just childish.

    1) Are children now allowed to drink alcohol in private residences now?? That’s just weird.

    2) In Belgium, anyone can buy alcohol, there’s no checking of ID’s at all. Why would you only start at 16, I don’t see the point?

    3) Don’t overdo it: 1 glass of wine shouldn’t be fined. But I agree the fines should be very steep if you’ve been drinking more than a few glasses.

  • The four factors you discuss ring true, but do you known of any research that backs up those claims?

  • Semi-on topic: one thing that I find particularly sad is the number of “can’t type properly… I’ve been drinking” and similar posts I come across on forums I frequent. You hit the nail on the head that this is as much a private/public issue as it is an age issue. Posting online in an apparently “public” forum while getting drunk in your own private space seems like a recipe for depression as well as disaster, at any age.

  • Jim – I know that there’s a lot of research in this area. I read a lot of it long ago, but I don’t have the spare cycles to drudge it up (and I wasn’t smart enough to organize it back then).

    Here are a few books that are somewhat related:
    – on status: “Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids” by Milner, Jr.
    – on age segregation: “How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture” by Chudacoff
    – on criminalization: “The Lost Population: Status Offenders in America” by McNamara

    But most of the crunchy data on these topics is published in journals (mostly psych and soc) and I don’t have those articles readily available. Sadly, it’s been 6 years since I’ve read that literature so I don’t have articles at the tip of my tongue.

  • Steve

    Hi danah,

    This is an interesting subject.

    In general I agree with your approach, and was prepared to suggest something similar, until I saw you were on the same track.

    There are some differences between your proposal and my variation. First, as a quibble, I prefer the term “license” to permit, because of it’s reaonance with the already existing “driver’s license” which I consider a parallel case.

    I guess the biggest difference is that you (although you don’t say explicitly) seem to envision the system of regulation as applying only to youth. I would make it age-neutral – at least at the upper end (more on the low end later). Mind you, my proposal comes from a genuine sympathy with the ideals of the prohibition movement – although I agree with those critics who say that it is both impractical to enforce and unfair to the responsible drinker. I envision a system of licensing as intermediate between universal prohibition and universal adult drinking.

    Under my proposal, there would be alcohol education similar to driver education and a license would issue upon successful completion of a written exam and a live drinking test. It would be interesting to include a requirement that one be able to estimate one’s own blood alcohol within a specified degree of accuracy. Not necessarily great accuracy – but to the extent that if you were in the bottom 10% of the population in your ability to estimate how much you had had, you shouldn’t have any.

    Once you have the license, it should be reasonably easy to have it suspended or revoked. Furnishing alcohol to an unlicensed person would be a no-brainer, as would the more serious alcohol related offenses or repeat instances of the lerss serious ones. (E.g. DUI, public intox, etc).

    In addition, I would make drunkeness a legally aggrevating factor in other crines, similar to what many states already do now with firearms. Commiting a crime under the influence would not only make you eligible for penalty enhancement for the crime, but would result in the loss of your alcohol license for an appropriate period.

    As to whether there is enough of an alcohol problem among adults to justify what some undoubtedly would see as draconian measures, I will only say that anyone who is familiar with the culture of dysfunctional alcoholic families knows the kind of things that motivate this proposal. Those who lack this familiarity probably would not believe me if I tried to tell you.

    I personally think there is probably something to the belief in hereditary factors in alcoholism. However, I do not favor an attempt to make either family history or genetic testing a factor in licensing – even if the genetics are ever definitively nailed down. I’m old school enough to deny any legitimate social interest in evaluating an individual’s genes.

    Now as to the question of driving offenses. Here I think *you* are being not only draconain but impractically so. How much, pray tell, is an “iota”? Is it more or less than a “smidgin”? And how do either of these measures compare with a “trace”? Assuming you mean “a dectable trace”, I still think this is bad policy for two reasons. One, there is a serious problem with false positives at the low end. Things like mouthwash, etc. Second, research, afik, has failed to confirm actual impairment resulting from doses at or very slightly above the iota level. Operating dangerous equipment “impaired” should only be of interest to the law if there is a preponderance of evidence of actual or probable impairment. I don’t think such evidence exists at or near the iota level.

    Now as to the lower age, if any. You would start at 16. I’m torn between a much younger age, and one older than the present. Here’s why.

    My first impulse is to follow the example of pilot’s licenses and amateur radio operators “if you’re big enough (smart enough, etc.) you’re old enough.” But as a counterpoint to that there’s the question of actual physiological and developmental damage to a physically immature organsim – especially the developing brain.

    I’m reminded of the popular accounts of research which purports to show that the portion of the brain responsible for strong emotion is well developed by the teenage years, while the region responsible for restrained judgement is not typically fullly developed until the early twenties.

    My concern is that alcohol use during the preteen, teen and early ternties could impact that development. As to actual data I am personally aware of one data point (i.e. this is anecdotal) and the data is confused by other factors – but it is suggestive. (If I have only one observation, can I say “the data *is*…”? 🙂

    A close friend of mine came to teenagehood in a time and place where those youth who were not prevented by their parents would gather on a patch of city owned land and “party hardy” – i.e. abuse every drug you could imagine and some you might wish you couldn’t – along with mass quantities of alcohol. She claims this was tacitly tolerated by the authorities, because that way they at least knew where the kids were and could keep an eye on them – and had they tried for a crackdown the party fever could/would have dispersed guerilla style throughout Lansing.

    Be that as it may, this person was a hard core partier for a number of years – starting as a young teen (and today, in her early fiftiesis slowing down only reluctantly due to severe health issues). To this day she shows signs of radically undeveloped impulse control. I have to wonder whether this was a result of frying her brains before they were even all there yet.

    More to the point, this anecdote suggests the question of whether alcohol alone can adversely impact brain development – and, if so, in what amounts at what ages. I think research on this point should be a factor in determining a legal starting age, if an age is to be set.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

    P.S.

    As I preview, I’m struck that much of your concern is with sociocultural factors in youthful alcohol abuse, whereas I have focused enturely on legal reform. There probably needs to be a massive re-evaluation of drinking customs at all levels of society. This probably cannot be handled as public policy per se. It would be just silly to try to outlaw or regulate “quarter bounce” or other popular drinking games, for instance. However, people of good will could take leadership in creating new more humane drinking customs. Surely this will be complicated by the social power of the alcohol industry – but it would be interesting nonetheless.

    And on a final note, is it true as I seem to observe that seeing multiple generations of a family partying at the bar together is more common in “working class” settings then among “preps”? And if so, why?

    -Steve

  • A Slate article on the Amethyst Initiative claims that the 21 age limit significantly reduces the incidence of teen drunkness and teen traffic accidents.

    I wonder how much this opposition to a high drinking age is rooted in class values. The middle class reaction to a lower drinking age might be a glass of wine for dinner and an appreciation and healthy respect for alcohol but for the lower class, it might be just a reason to get drunker, faster, sooner.

  • A Slate article on the Amethyst Initiative claims that the 21 age limit significantly reduces the incidence of teen drunkness and teen traffic accidents.

    I wonder how much this opposition to a high drinking age is rooted in class values. The middle class reaction to a lower drinking age might be a glass of wine for dinner and an appreciation and healthy respect for alcohol but for the lower class, it might be just a reason to get drunker, faster, sooner.

  • Jo

    Remove the age limit altogether but make the people who sell the alcohol responsible for its consequences?

    Sell a drink to a drunk and you will be in court with him/her accounting for what happened next?

    Make the license to sell alcohol contingent on no incidents been tracked back to your shop?

    And the taxation rate of the manufacturers directly linked to the number of alcohol related incidents nationwide! Bring all the bills back to them.

    Something like that anyway. Police the consequences when they happen and come back to the economic motive.

    The town I live in is the home of Amazing Grace (hymn and movie). I was interested to see that to abolish slavery, it was necessary first to weaken the economic power of the slavers.

    I don’t want to ban alcohol completely. But limiting the excess would probably follow the same principles.

    @Xianhang Zhang, Brits are notorious drunks. I’ve heard people from continental Europe remark that it is necessary to be drunk to eat the food! A celebrity chef has just been lamenting the alcohol-without-food culture that you mention. If taxes were linked to consequences, would alcohol purveyors be encouraged to market via a deep understanding of beer, wine etc – say a cultural rather than a consumption approach to selling?

  • You might enjoy IU researcher Ruth Engs’s work on the topic:
    http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/

    A few concepts/expressions which could be useful in your future coverage…
    “Moral entrepreneurs” (Howie Becker’s concept)
    “Forbidden Fruit” (or cookie jar, but forbidden fruit works better for keyword searches, I think)
    “Responsible Drinking” (a taboo expression in alcohol research in the United States but the concept which runs at the core of Amethyst)

  • bobentin

    The age restriction does make some amount of sense in exactly one context: drunk driving. Younger drivers are much more dangerous, and this gets much worse when combined with alcohol. Incidentally, California already has a law whereby for drivers under the legal drinking age, any detectable alcohol at all counts as a DUI. However, what about places like NYC, where most people aged 18-20 don’t drive? Someone, I forget who, suggested that at age 18, you should be able to apply for either a driving license, or a drinking license. That way, if you can legally drink, you can’t legally drive, or vice versa, and there’s no problem. I wouldn’t have minded this at all, especially since I didn’t get my driving license until I was 21 anyway.

  • My website, linked from this post, offers answers to all the lame excuses for employing gun-toting goons in bulletproof vests as weapons of unprovoked violence to intimidate innocent citizens out of exercising their inherent natural right to drink the beverage of their choice.

    Outvoted discrimination victims should remember that if they drink too much, it does not hurt the despotic state senators one bit. For less than the cost of one beer, they can express their hostility toward the enemies of liberty by telling them they won’t join the National Guard to serve their country and their community because Congress and the State legislature hate everybody under 21. They should also say the nly reason the State gets away with it is because good cop-killers are hard to find these days.

    The idiots are so far gone, they expect gratitude for their malicious wrongdoing.

  • Pip

    Another aspect with alcohol, legal drinking age and social status connected with adult privileges is criminality. Young people are more or less “socially forced” to get in contact with criminals in order to obtain the desired alcohol. In Sweden, even a dork like 13-year-old me knew where to get illegal alcohol in the early nineties, and now most of the kids have the number to a booze dealer or three in their mobile phones. I imagine it is not that different in the US. So we have a situation where it is perfectly normal for children to regularly make transactions with organised criminals. Unfortunately even adults who may buy as much alcohol as they like buy illegal alcohol since it is cheaper (about 50% of store prices). The big money is obviously with the adults, so giving young people the legal means to buy alcohol would not make the criminals go away, but I wonder if as many children would grow up into adults who think it is OK to buy illegal goods if they had not been peer-pressured into doing that already.