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Winter 2014, Volume 22, Number 1

Screenshot from online simulation tool of parent talking to teenager who is looking at a cell phone.

Underage Drinking: Interactive Tool Helps Parents "Start the Talk"

SAMHSA recently launched Start the Talk Exit Disclaimer, an interactive, online simulation tool that helps parents and caregivers of children ages 9 to 15 practice tough conversations about alcohol.

Start the Talk is the newest component of "Talk. They Hear You.", SAMHSA's national underage drinking prevention campaign, which launched last May. The Campaign equips parents and caregivers with the information, tools, and confidence they need to start talking to their kids early—as early as 9 years old—about the dangers of alcohol.

Start the Talk is an evidence-based behavioral tool that uses life-like avatars to engage in interactive conversations. The simulation is based on research in social cognition, learning theory, and neuroscience. Each virtual role-play conversation is structured as a 10 to 12 minute interactive experience. Users enter a risk-free practice environment, assume a parental role, and engage in a conversation with an intelligent, fully animated and emotionally responsive avatar that models human behavior and adapts its responses and behaviors to the user's conversation decisions.

SAMHSA's 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found an estimated 135.5 million Americans aged 12 or older reported being current drinkers of alcohol. More than 59 million reported binge alcohol use in the past month and 17 million reported heavy drinking.

Studies have shown that parents have a significant influence on young people's decisions about alcohol consumption,(1) especially when they create supportive and nurturing environments in which their children can make their own decisions.(2) This is why talking to children, early and often, can have a significant impact on how a child thinks about alcohol.

Practicing conversations, even virtually, can assist parents and caregivers with the real-life, important talks needed to prevent a child from engaging in underage alcohol use.

"Short, frequent discussions can make all the difference. Start the Talk provides a safe place to practice these conversations and build confidence," said Frances M. Harding, Director of SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP).

"Ongoing, open, and non-aggressive conversations between children and their parents and caregivers are important to preventing underage alcohol use. Even when children seem like they aren't listening, they really do hear us," said Robert Vincent, CSAP program officer for the "Talk. They Hear You." Campaign.

SAMHSA encourages its partners to try Start the Talk Exit Disclaimer themselves and then share the tool and other "Talk. They Hear You." campaign resources with parents and communities. Find links and helpful tips at under the Partner Toolkit tab.

  1. Nash, S.G., McQueen, A., and Bray, J.H. (2005). Pathways to adolescent alcohol use: Family environment, peer influence, and parental expectations. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(1), 19–28.
  2. Barnes, G.M., Reifman, A.S., Farrell, M.P., and Dintcheff, B.A. (2000). The effects of parenting on the development of adolescent alcohol misuse: A six-wave latent growth model. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(1), 175–186.

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