WASHINGTON, D.C.—If you drank as a teenager, do not tell your kids about it. That’s the lesson from Chelsea Lynn Jurman’s study of teen drinking behavior—the only social science project among the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search going through the final judging rounds here this week.

“The perception kids create becomes the reality,” says Jurman, 17, a senior at Rosyln High School in New York—and if they perceive that you drank and turned out okay, they figure they will, too.

ScientificAmerican.com is on hand to speak with several of the finalists in this prestigious national competition that is the modern incarnation of the old Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which began in the 1940s. The 40 finalists get scholarships ranging from $5,000 to the top prize of $100,000. You can read about past finalists in our "Where Are They Now" series, and follow along as we live-Twitter from Washington.

Jurman got the idea for her project while serving as a peer drug educator, charged with helping other kids explore their feelings and about drugs and alcohol, and figuring out ways to have a good time that don’t involve substance abuse. According to recent studies, about 75 percent of teens have tried alcohol by the end of high school. Jurman noticed that most people thought peer pressure was a very powerful factor in teen drinking, and wondered what else might be. Since most of her peers are children of baby boomers – who may not have spent their youths in an entirely sober fashion, and who often like to be “friends” with their kids – she wondered what effect a parent talking, frankly, about her own drinking might have on a child. (Of course, if there is a genetic component to substance abuse, then parents who drank at young ages might have children who drank at young ages.)

The answer? Not good. Jurman gave 123 teenagers an in-depth survey exploring whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “My parents/guardians usually know where I am on weekends or after school” and “It is easy to take alcohol from my house.” She asked her subjects whether they knew if their parents had used alcohol as teens, and how often these teens drank and if they ever engaged in binge drinking. After teaching herself lots of statistics to cut the results, she found that teens who perceived that their parents drank as kids were more likely to use alcohol themselves. Of course, the opposite is also true—kids who don’t think their parents drank as teens are less likely to drink.

So the lesson is that if your past is less than stellar, you’re better off avoiding the stories and instead focusing on sharing your grown-up values. “Parents may not feel they have a lot of control” over teen drinking, Jurman says, but her study finds they do. She has been invited to speak to parenting groups about the subject, and also to present her work to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Photo of Chelsea Jurman by her Intel STS booth by Laura Vanderkam/copyright Scientific American