The saga of the First Twins is fated to play on a while longer, now that Jenna Bush, 19, has decided to fight charges that she tried to buy liquor with someone else's ID at an Austin restaurant last month. Caught with a margarita at the same haunt, her sister Barbara pleaded no contest last week and will do eight hours of community service. While the President and his wife quietly grappled with how to manage their wayward children (it's Jenna's second citation), baby-boomer parents across the country had to wonder: If the First Daughters could get into this kind of trouble with the press and public and even the Secret Service looking on, what might their own kids--living their lives outside such a bright circle of scrutiny--be up to? Chances are good that they're drinking too. Half the students age 10 to 24 questioned in a 1999 study by the Centers for Disease Control said they had consumed alcohol in the preceding month. Boomer parents ought not to be too shocked. They whooped it up considerably more in their youths, according to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism records that document how, across every age group, we've become an ever more sober society over the past two decades. In 1979, nearly 50% of 12- to 17- year-olds reported that they drank at some time in the previous month; now that figure is barely 20%. For kids 18 to 25, the stats fell from 75% to 60%. Still, the persistence of youthful drinking is forcing a new generation of parents to confront the dangers alcohol poses to their children and to contemplate the quandary of how to protect against the worst excesses.
Often it is college administrators who have to deal directly with the most reckless imbibing. In studies through the 1990s by the Harvard School of Public Health, the percentage of college students who reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks remained steady at 44%. (Binging was defined as five drinks in a row for boys and four for girls.) In an age in which campus officials are increasingly seen as proxy parents, this is worrying to them. Legal liability is of particular concern, especially after M.I.T. last year chose to avoid a lawsuit by paying out $6 million to the parents of a freshman who in 1997 drank himself to death at a fraternity initiation.
One approach to reckless imbibing gaining currency among college administrators is unconventional and even counterintuitive. It argues for accepting that college-age kids are going to drink and for encouraging them to do so safely. Some campus officials recommend bowing to reality and lowering the drinking age, as 29 states did in the early '70s. By 1988, in response to the national mood against drunk driving and a threat by the Federal Government to cut off highway funding, every state had a minimum drinking age of 21.
Researchers at the University of Michigan who studied the effects of the increase in the drinking age found that states on average reduced drinking among high school seniors 13.3%. The change also contributed to a 58% drop in alcohol-related auto deaths among 15- to 20-year-olds since 1982. A small chorus of university leaders believe, however, that the higher drinking age has in some ways made drinking more dangerous.