A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that children are usually introduced to alcohol use when they are as young as eight to 10 years of age, and this mostly happens at home.
Reporting their findings in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the researchers said that unlike most studies that focused on drinking by children in middle or high school, their study examined the earliest exposure to alcohol in a large community sample of children.
The researchers said that their study revealed that the introduction to alcohol occurred long before adolescence, and that it was an experience that occurred in the home.
"Almost all of the limited scientific literature on alcohol use in children has focused on drinking, not sipping or tasting alcohol," said John E. Donovan, an associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Local community studies seem to show that drinking by children - not sipping - correlates with higher levels of disinhibition, more positive alcohol expectancies, more peer alcohol use, and lower school grades, just as it does in adolescence," he added.
He said that most surveys on drug and alcohol use would ask children or adolescents whether they had had more than a few sips of alcohol.
"This type of question essentially ignores the alcohol experience of those who have only had sips and tastes of alcohol, which can be a substantial number of children," he said.
"I wanted to determine what percentage of young children have had this level of experience with alcohol, and to find out if children who have only sipped alcohol are different from those who have not," he added.
The researchers used targeted-age directory sampling and random-digit dialling to recruit a sample of 452 children (214 boys, 238 girls), aged eight or 10, and their families from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
The children reported their own sipping or tasting, as well as their perceptions of alcohol-related parental beliefs and behaviour, through computer-assisted interviews. Their parents were also interviewed by the researchers.
"Nearly forty percent of children aged eight to 10 have sipped or tasted alcohol, whereas only six percent have ever had a drink of alcohol," said Donovan.
"If one only asked about drinks, one would have the impression that few children at these ages have had experience with alcohol, whereas the reality is that nearly seven times as many have had some experience. Second, alcohol is most often sipped by children in the family context or during religious services, and almost never with friends or when alone.
Third, children in families in which the parents drink are at greater risk for having sipped or tasted alcohol as young as age eight or 10. Additionally, children whose parents drink more frequently are at higher risk of having had a sip or taste of alcohol. Surprisingly, it appears that much of this greater risk is not due to parents having offered the children alcohol: a third of the mothers and half of the fathers whose children have sipped alcohol are not aware of it," he added.
The authors of the study note that even though it appears that about half the population has had some personal experience with alcohol by age 10, sipping or tasting by children does not seem to be associated with a tendency to engage in delinquent or other problem behaviour.