Ah, teens on spring break – a time to let loose, party, drink, break the law and experiment with drugs and sex. What else are they going to do when their parents aren’t around?
With that in mind, there’s no doubt some parents are left biting their nails as they replay a reel of exaggerated Hollywood movie scenes and YouTube videos of out-of-control teens partying it up on beaches in their heads. But is that what’s really going on?
Are teens and young adults actually taking part in the stereotypical spring break debauchery, or do they just want everyone to think they are?
Not really, experts say – that is, unless your child is known to engage in that type of behaviour at home already.
So, what’s actually happening?
According to Nuno Ribeiro, assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s department of recreation, sports and tourism who researched spring break culture, past research has continued to reinforce the belief that spring break is the equivalent of a massive non-stop party.
“It was thought that if you went to certain destinations – like Mexico, Jamaica and Panama City Beach, for example – then you were going to engage in something outside of your ordinary experience,” Ribeiro says. “This meant behaviours were thought to be more extreme in experiences like alcohol consumption, drug consumption and risky sexual behaviours.”
Ribeiro, however, wanted to dive deeper to find out what was really going on with older teen and young adult spring breakers between the ages of 18 and 25.
That’s when Rubeiro, who conducted the researchers while he was at Penn State in 2013, found that the previous research – as well as the media’s portrayals over the years – were not presenting a full picture of the spring break experience.
“What we found was that the spring break stereotype was true only for a minority,” Rubeiro says. “For a very small group of spring breaks – yes, they did consume alcohol and drugs and engage in risky sexual practices, but it was a much smaller percentage than what has appeared in other research.”
In fact, Rubeiro noticed that the activities at most spring break destinations were not that different than from what campuses were offering on the weekends and at other celebrations.
As well, he found that the spring breakers who engaged in this type of extreme behaviour also did so back home.
“What we found was a very strong association between the behaviour during the year and behaviour during spring break,” Rubeiro explains. “If a student who went out during the semester a couple times a week and had a few drinks or a couple of sexual partners, they’re not going to dramatically alter their behaviour just because they’re on spring break.”
This was even truer if students were coming from institutions known to be “party schools.”
“The spike in [alcohol] consumption tends to happen more with students who come from universities that are ‘party schools,’” says Rubeiro. “They already have a campus culture where alcohol and drug consumption and risky sexual behaviours are already a part of the experience.”
But when it comes to binge drinking, kids are actually starting a lot earlier than most parents might think.
According to a 2013 University of Toronto study, one in 25 middle school children (ages 12 to 14) binge drink and admit to consuming five or more drinks on at least one occasion.
Another 2014 study published in the journal Jama Pediatrics looking at drinking habits in the U.S. also found that it was common among American high school students to drink five or more alcoholic drinks in a row.
Furthermore, Rubeiro’s research team found that the spring break experience was different depending on the whether kids were male or female.
“The main thing was the females are far more culturally aware of the potential repercussions of what such risky behaviours could entail as they reported fewer of those risky behaviours, where males reported a lot more,” Rubeiro reveals.
However, Rubeiro says there is a chance that girls under-report these incidents while boys over-report. He speculates that it may be due to cultural pressures, being that women are often given negative labels if they have multiple sex partners while men are celebrated for the same act.
“As a whole, though, both males and females engaged in far fewer risky behaviours than what has previously been reported by past research and the media,” Rubeiro says. “We don’t give kids enough credit. “Kids are actually pretty smart and they know their limits.”
However, chances of teens and young adults engaging in these behaviours also depends on the level of education. According to Rubeiro’s research, freshman are more likely to push the envelope because they are more unlikely to know their limits, unlike senior students.
So why do these exaggerated spring break stereotypes continue to be upheld?
It might have to do with the way spring breakers choose to remember their experience, which doesn’t always reflect the reality of what actually happened, says UBC psychology professor Derrick Wirtz.
According to Wirtz’s research, spring breakers tend to set such high expectations before their trip that when they’re actually on the trip, their experience fails to meet the expectations they’ve set.
When they come back and recount their stories to friends and family, however, their spring break vacation is built back up to what they had in their minds pre-trip.
To study the relationship between people’s expectations, experiences and memories, Wirtz had 45 participating students fill out a questionnaire of what they thought their spring break experience would be like — both a month as well as a few days before they left on their trips.
Wirtz measured their satisfaction on a five-point scale and saw that it was “quite high” at 4.65.
“The first part of our study told us that when it comes to expectations, students expect that it’s going to be a pretty intense experience,” Wirtz says. “There were a lot of positive emotions, not very many negative emotions and, in an overall sense, they thought it was going to be great.”
For the second part of the study, Wirtz followed up with the participants several times during the day while away to see how they were enjoying their trip.
And what he found was that the answers they were giving were out of sync with what they had indicated as their expectations before the trip, dropping their satisfaction on the scale to 4.1.
“When we compare 4.65 to 4.1 statistically, that’s a pretty significant jump down,” Wirtz says. “Long story short; these vacations were good, they just weren’t quite as good or intensely good as the students thought they would be. There’s probably a lot more moderate moments, so it’s not always like every minute people are at the top of the happiness scale. There’s a lot of moderate feelings on spring break.”
When the students returned, they were asked to describe their experience. It was the answers they gave in this third part of the study that surprised Wirtz.
“What we were surprised to see was that the ratings they gave on the same exact scale now looked more like what they thought the vacations was going to be like before they went than what they actually said when we checked in on them during their vacation,” Wirtz says.
And when asked again six weeks later if they would take the same vacation knowing what they knew now, the participants said they would but based their response on their memory which was tied to their initial expectation, not on their actual experience.
Wirtz didn’t look into why the disconnect exists, but he speculates that it could have to do with the fact that people fail to take into account the neutral moments that often take up the majority of typical spring break trips.
Still be prepared
For many teens, this year will mark their first spring break experience – many of them unaware of what their limits are.
And while parenting expert Alyson Schafer believes the stereotypes surrounding spring break can be exaggerated, it’s still a good idea for parents to talk to their kids and prepare them for risky situations.
“There is the stereotype that it’s going to be the Animal House, crazy experience and I think that’s what kids are signing up for when they go away,” Schafer says. “It’s like a right of passage to go have that parent-free, unsupervised party in an environment that’s set up to have all these kinds of events that you wouldn’t get any other day.”
Even if parents trust their kids, there are still circumstances in which your child has no, or very little, control over.
According to a 2015 University of Miami study, traffic fatalities in popular spring break destinations in the U.S. (like Florida, California, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Arizona) spike during the spring break season.
In fact, researchers found that the weekly death toll associated with car crashes in the 14 spring break counties was 9.1 per cent higher during the spring break season compared to other weeks of the year. They also found a significantly higher incidence of traffic fatalities involving out-of-state vacationers.
But, the study says, there was no statistical difference between traffic fatalities involving drivers who had consumed alcohol versus those who had not.
The number of arrests, as well, in the popular Orange Beach area in Alabama spiked 800 per cent during last year’s spring break season in March, NBC’s 12 WSFA reports.
Police say they arrested more than 300 people in the first two weeks, most of which were for underage possession of alcohol.
(The spring break season can begin as early as February when Canadian students kick off their reading weeks and can stretch through until April for some American colleges.)
The media reports may sound scary, but sheltering kids is not the answer.
Spring break is an opportunity for parents to teach their kids to be vigilant, as well as how to handle themselves in certain situations and being smart about their choices. It’s preparing them to be independent.
“I’m going to say that parents should worry but they should let their kids go,” Schafer says. “For sure you need to be cautious and I think parents need to talk to their kids about stuff that they should be talking to them about anyways.”
Schafer adds that parents should expect their child’s conduct on spring break to be the same as it would be at concerts or house parties back home.
“You’re talking about instilling them with trust – that you trust them to handle situations that are going to arise rather than keeping them under lock and key and constant surveillance,” she says. “It’s that letting out that leash so that our children have the experiences to face life’s realities and practice good conduct.”
If parents are really worried, Schafer suggests trying to meet in the middle. This could mean that kids go on a smaller spring break vacation to an alternative destination with a select group of two or three friends rather than in a larger group.