Why are young people drinking less alcohol during lockdown?

MUNICH, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 21: Young women enjoy drinking beer out of  1-liter-mugs of beer during the opening weekend of the 2019 Oktoberfest on September 21, 2019 in Munich, Germany. This year's Oktoberfest, which will draw millions of visitors from all over the world, will run from October 21 through October 6. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
Data from Public Health England shows young people are drinking less since the pandemic. (Getty Images)

Confined to our houses for large portions of the year, stressed by the pandemic unfolding around us, and with plenty of time on our hands, it’s perhaps little wonder alcohol consumption in England has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

But not among young people, it appears.

According to analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists this week, more than 8.4 million adults in England were drinking at high risk levels in June, compared to 4.8 million in February.

However, the numbers of people aged between 18 and 24 drinking above the recommended amount of 14 units per week, was down to 14.4% during lockdown, from 18.4% before.

What’s more, higher numbers of young people have been opting for a completely teetotal lifestyle.

So, what’s going on?

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly detrimental to the income and social lives of the younger generation.

“Young people’s drinking is in response to how much money they have - and these are the people in the most fragile employment, usually. Younger people tend to drink more socially, so they lack the social settings because of the lockdown,” says Dr David Bremner, a consultant addictions psychiatrist and medical director of Turning Point, a charity supporting people with their drug and alcohol use.

“Solitary drinking by yourself in the home is more often associated with older drinkers.

“Younger persons might be more resilient in managing the stresses that COVID-19 and lockdown presented them with.”

But while the circumstances of young people may have changed during lockdown, the decline in drinking alcohol is in fact part of a much longer trend.

Ian Hamilton, senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York, says: “It is a trend that has been going on for a decade, young people are bucking that trend and drinking less year-on-year.

“It may be that what we are seeing in the pandemic is just a continuation of that.”

This is supported by the Public Health England figures, which show the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds not consuming any alcohol at all increased from 43.6% before the coronavirus pandemic, to 47.2% during lockdown.

Hamilton suggests that the younger generation have formed a different relationship with alcohol than those before them. “There is not that same socialisation and culture that people in their 30s+ have of using alcohol on a regular basis, this generation of millennials don’t turn to alcohol the way that baby boomers do.”

Hamilton says that along with this long-term trend, the reduction in drinking alcohol for this generation during the COVID-19 crisis could also be down to their work commitments and having less time for drinking.

Young people are more likely to be in precarious employment or zero hours contracts, which may mean they do not want to be seen to be drinking excessively.

He added: “With social media, they [young people] are much more conscious of how they are viewed, they don’t want to be seen as drunk on Facebook or making a fool of themselves.”

What about other drugs?

According to data from the Global Drug Survey, the amount of drugs people took in lockdown generally decreased - with a marked exception on cannabis-use, which increased three-fold during lockdown.

The survey, conducted in May and June of this year, found 36% of Brits used THC-containing cannabis products in the previous 30 days, compared to 12% in the 12 months before lockdown.

What’s more, these figures show that the use of Cocaine, MDMA, Ketamine and LSD all saw drops in usage, with MDMA usage dropping the most from 24% before the pandemic to 8% this summer.

The survey was not broken down by age.

Hamilton says cannabis may be viewed as a “safe” option by some. “Irrespective of what people are consuming, whether it is a joint or a CBD-type product, people view it as much safer than they used to.

“Cannabis’ image has been refreshed and although people perceive it to be safer, that’s not always the case.

Mr Hamilton added that a growing problem in the UK is predominantly young people combining tobacco with cannabis, exposing them to the harmful effects of tobacco and the long-term health problems that can come with it.