High school students should have science-based facts that help them understand the role alcohol can play in either having fun or ruining it, according to a psychologist and substance abuse specialist who spoke with parents at Ridgewood High School (RHS)
About 40 parents attended a program at RHS on Dec. 15 featuring Dr. Tim Silvestri, who presented "Straight Shots," a program aimed at helping parents understand and deal with the issue of student substance abuse. Presented by the Ridgewood Municipal Alliance, this program, which was presented to sophomores earlier in the day, was a follow-up to a Parent 2 Parent meeting where parents discussed teenage drinking.
Board of Education Trustee Sheila Brogan, chair of the Municipal Alliance, hoped to further parents' understanding of the issue.
"This was our next step," she said, "bringing in an expert to really talk to parents about what happens with a teenager when they drink and how to have a conversation with your child about prevention."
Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, knowledge and an engaging personality, Silvestri delivered facts about teens' relationship with alcohol.
"The danger with doing prevention work is you can make the problem worse, and the reason, research suggests, is that you're asserting a false norm," he said. "Kids will walk away from a presentation saying, 'You know, we all drink, that's why you're telling us not to drink.' So, they walk away with the false perception that everyone's drinking."
Instead, Silvestri uses a different approach.
"What I do is say, 'Most of you aren't drinking,' and we assert the true norm and that lowers drinking," he said. "There's good research behind this."
The other reason why teens think drinking is more prevalent is because advertising targets teens, he said.
During the presentation, Silvestri pointed out that research shows youth are 93 times more likely to see beer drinking ads than adults. He went through a commercial frame by frame showing the not-so-hidden messages that some beer companies are sending kids. These messages use the lure of fun, sex and sports to lead teens into linking positive expectations with drinking alcohol. This concept is what Silvestri referred to as neural mapping, or the science of instilling beliefs.
He equipped parents, and students earlier in the day, with facts and skill-building information to help them navigate situations involving drinking alcohol, including explaining the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) chart as well as what's happening to the brain and body at each of the three zones on the chart. He maintained that if teens were going to drink, they stay in the green zone (the lowest zone) to achieve the best effects of the alcohol. He warned that overdrinking can lead to moderate (blue zone) to severe (red zone) mental, physical and sensory impairment that can ultimately lead to death.
The good news, according to Silvestri, is that only about 25 percent of high school students are heavy drinkers and an overwhelming 90 percent do not approve of overdrinking. But he believes all students should have science-based facts that help them focus more on having fun and understanding the role that alcohol can play in either maintaining that fun or ruining it.
His main message to teens is a realistic and informative one.
"Seek ways to have fun, [but] it just so happens that if you cross a certain threshold with alcohol, somewhere between .08/.1 [blood alcohol level], alcohol will absolutely, definitively inhibit your ability to have fun," he said.
Parent Cathy Skinner found Silvestri's approach refreshing.
"I've always felt that we as parents need to be more engaged in what's going on with our kids, and he's giving us the tools to do this," she said.
New Board of Education trustee Vince Loncto said he was relieved to find the doctor's information aligned with what his teenage children have been telling him.
"He confirmed a lot of what they say, which is that they find other kids [drinking] annoying," he said.
Brogan was pleased with the night's turnout and hoped the information presented would bring students and parents closer.
"This presentation was given to students today, so the combination of being able to now have a conversation with a student who was at the presentation can be very powerful for a parent," she said. "Forty parents will hopefully go home and talk to their kids tonight."