Should my teenager go on spring break?

By: Patrick J. Kiger
spring break
Image Gallery: Beaches What kinds of risks does your teen face on an unsupervised spring break trip? See pictures of beaches.

It's the sentence sure to fill even the most confident parent with fear and trepidation. Your teenager looks you in the eyes and says: "I want to go with the other kids on spring break to [insert some distant, dangerously debauched-sounding vacation locale here]."

OK, sure, you can give him or her an emphatic "no" and start quoting statistics about violent crime in said spring break locale and tell horror stories about teenagers who got drunk and drowned or fell from a hotel balcony. You know the likely response will be an angry "You never let me do ANYTHING!" plus three days of sulking and angry silence at breakfast. Most likely you'll feel at least a little bit awful. You'll have this growing suspicion that you really are the overprotective spoilsport your teen sees across the dining room table.


But there are good reasons you should stick to your guns on this one. And there are safer spring break alternatives, too. We'll get into that on the next page. But first, let's talk a little about spring break history.

It may seem hard to imagine, but there was a time in America when teens did far more dangerous stuff than beer bongs and baring their breasts in front of video cameras -- like operating heavy machinery in factories, sailing the world on merchant ships and fighting in wars. A child born in 1900 had close to a one-in-five chance of dying in infancy, so anybody who made it to adolescence was pretty much considered a mature grownup. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that rising affluence enabled teens to postpone entering adult life and enjoy a relatively carefree existence. Spring break trips to resort towns, celebrated by Hollywood movies like the 1960s film "Where the Boys Are" became a part of that.

By the mid-1980s, spring break had mushroomed into an industry, with 380,000 students cramming into cheap motel rooms in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each April and spending $110 million to have a good time. MTV telecast the inebriated revelry so young teens could see what they had to look forward to.

But the most popular resort towns eventually tired of the havoc that throngs of young partiers created and began chasing them away by cracking down on their behavior. Spring break action gradually shifted to less glamorous, progressively edgier towns -- and across the border to Mexico, where the U.S. State Department estimates that 100,000 U.S. teens now spend spring break each year.

What risks does your teen face if he or she ventures to one of these spring break destinations?


Spring Break Risks and Safer Alternatives

Health and safety experts say there are plenty of reasons you shouldn't let your teen engage in spring break festivities. For example, a study conducted by the American Medical Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2006 found that college age women on spring break trips had an alarming tendency to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and engage in high-risk sexual activity. Ninety percent said that beer, wine and booze were easy to obtain during spring break, and 83 percent said that drinking heavily was a big part of the fun. One in five had sexual experiences during spring break that they later regretted. And those girls were college aged -- a few years older than your impressionable high school teen.

But it's not only young women who engage in risky behavior on spring break. During spring break 2010, a 17-year-old named Matt James, who had earned a football scholarship to Notre Dame, fell to his death from a Panama City Beach, Fla., hotel balcony, apparently after drinking alcohol. His death made national news, but it wasn't the first of such tragedies. Just two weeks prior, a 19-year-old Georgia man died in pretty much exactly the same way. During a 17-day stretch in March, Panama City police arrested nearly 1,000 teens for underage drinking.


Spring break "is no place to send your high school kid," Detroit Free Press columnist and best-selling inspirational book author Mitch Albom advises. "I don't care how much they beg. I don't care how much they work in school. And I really don't care how much they promise not to drink."

But if you refuse spring break, how do you deal with your sulky teen? Experts suggest offering some alternatives to the drunken coming-of-age rite. Perhaps you can take the entire family to Paris or Hawaii, or anyplace that will seem more appealing than a sweaty, beer-soaked motel room in Florida.

Another possibility is to encourage your teen to spend spring break doing something to help make the world a better place. In Atlanta, Ga., for example, several high schools set up programs in which teens could spend their vacations on well-supervised humanitarian missions where they did everything from help elderly people in Appalachia to work in Haitian orphanages.


Lots More Information

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  • "A Brief History of Adolescence." Undated. (May 10, 2010)
  • Albom, Mitch. "Commentary: Booze, Teens, Spring Break Don't Mix." Detroit Free Press. April 13, 2010. (May 10, 2010)
  • Clark, Michael D. "Parents Shaken By Teen Death." April 10, 2010. (May 10, 2010)
  • Dodd, D. Aileen. "More Teens See Spring Break as Time to Volunteer." Atlanta Journal Constitution. April 1, 2010. (May 1, 2010)
  • Elliott, Victoria Stagg. "AMA Says It's Time to Fix Broken Spring Break." AMA News.
  • "Infant Mortality and Life Expectancy." Undated. (May 10, 2010)
  • Kendrick, Carleton. "Spring Break: What Parents Need to Know." Undated. (May 10, 2010)
  • "Spring Break Facts of Life." Undated. (May 10, 2010)
  • "Spring Break in Mexico: Know Before You Go." U.S. Department of State. Undated. (May 10, 2010)