Newswise — During the COVID-19 pandemic, policy interventions designed to reduce the virus’ spread included shelter-in-place (SIP) orders and phased “reopenings” of public spaces. Knowing that adult alcohol and substance use generally rose during the pandemic due to factors such as stress, boredom, worsening mental health, and increased alcohol availability, a new study sought to understand the impact of SIPs and reopenings on adolescent alcohol use in California. Analysis shows SIP decreased frequency of alcohol use. Also, compliance with SIP orders was associated with decreased frequency and quantity of use.

These results and others will be shared at the 45th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Orlando, Florida.

“Both SIP and ‘modified reopening’ orders impacted many aspects of adolescents’ daily life, including changes in routine activities such as in-person school and social gatherings, as well as less access to alcohol at restaurants but greater access at home,” said Kristina Wharton, associate research scientist at the Prevention Research Center. “We saw the SIP and modified reopening windows of time in 2020 and 2021 as a natural experiment in which we could evaluate how changes in adolescent activity environments and opportunities to obtain alcohol may have influenced their drinking behaviors.” Wharton will discuss these findings at the RSA meeting on 28 June 2022.

The researchers gathered county-level SIP and reopening policy data from March 13, 2020 through to June 15, 2021 from 51 California counties. They also surveyed 1,249 adolescents, 12 to16 years of age at baseline, regarding their previous one-month alcohol use and six-month use frequency and quantity of use across different contexts (restaurants, own home, others’ homes, outside). “We wanted to examine competing influences,” explained Wharton. “For example, inhibitors were defined as fewer in-person social opportunities, and more parental/caregiver supervision if living at home, whereas facilitators were stress and anxiety, online social forums, more alcohol availability at home, and to-go and delivery policies.”

They found that adolescent self-reported compliance with SIP and modified reopening policies was associated with a decreased frequency and quantity of alcohol use in all contexts. Also, SIP decreased previous one-month frequency of alcohol use, while modified re-openings did not impact adolescent alcohol use frequency, quantity, or context.

“One interpretation of these results is that they reflect the complexity of individuals’ relationships to their environments: enforcement of SIP and related policies, and how adolescents’ families, neighbors, peers, teachers, schools, and communities responded and related to SIP orders,” said Wharton. “Results may also signify a need to focus on adolescents who were less compliant with SIPs and other regulations. Providing assistance to families with adolescents and schools serving adolescents to help build and foster resiliency, social supports, positive coping, and communication skills for adolescents so that they can comply with SIP and pandemic-related orders could also have implications beyond the pandemic in terms of preventing alcohol use.”

“There remain many gaps in the literature for better understanding of how SIP and other pandemic-related orders affected adolescents’ alcohol and substance use during the pandemic and beyond it,” said Wharton, “for example, the use of an equity lens. How was the pandemic experienced by … adolescents of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, essential worker statuses, living in multi-generational housing environments, those grieving loss due to and during COVID-19, and other characteristics? We need to enhance the collective understanding of diverse experiences of the pandemic and how these may have impacted adolescents’ lives and relationships to alcohol and other substances.”