Is the traditionally positive message about teens' participation in sport in need of some revision?

A McMaster University study suggests young athletes are more likely to abuse alcohol, but also are less likely to use illicit drugs, 

After a review of published studies about alcohol use in young people, McMaster researchers found that participation in sports raises the chance of adolescents and young adults abusing alcohol, and that abuse may continue long after their teenage years. The research was published in November’s online edition of Addictive Behaviours.

“Sport participation in the past was associated with increased alcohol use in the future – sometimes years into the future,” said John Cairney, a professor of family medicine at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Medicine. “The patterns that are established early can last well into a person’s life.”

'We just have to be mindful of the culture of sports.' - John Cairney, a professor of family medicine at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Medicine

“Sport is almost always framed in a positive way — the idea is that participation benefits children,” Cairney said. “But our research is talking about something quite frankly we think we’ve known for a while, but haven’t really admitted.”

For the study, Cairney and his team scoured various databases for studies published between 1982 and 2012 that had followed young athletes over time. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse requested the study.

Researchers found evidence that participation in sport is associated with increased alcohol consumption for adolescents and young adults from 12-year-olds to those in their early twenties.

Cairney says the links between alcohol and sport in society may be part of the issue, citing beer ads during televised sports events to acceptance of drinking as part of sporting culture as possible reasons why.

“My worry is we know this is going on but are drawing a blind eye to it,” he said.

But while research points to higher alcohol consumption among young athletes, that same age group was less likely to take illicit drugs — excluding marijuana, that is. “So there is a mixed message to the potential benefits of sport,” he said.

All but one of the studies took place in the United States, which Cairney called a “glaring omission in the literature.”

 “The lack of Canadian data is glaring and a really important gap in the science,” he said.

Sport can and should still be used as a vehicle to talk about a healthy lifestyle, Cairney says – but parents, coaches and organizations just have to be mindful of other parts of the culture.

“I think there are a lot of positives connected to sports participation — goal achievement, fitness, team play,” he said.

“We just have to be mindful of the culture of sports.”