Once ranked among the world’s heaviest users of alcohol and drugs, Iceland’s youth today are Europe’s model for clean living. How Iceland achieved this remarkable turnaround could be a template for other nations struggling to keep their kids out of trouble.
The story begins in 1992, when researchers asked virtually every child between the ages of 14 and 16 to complete a survey on their drinking, smoking and drug habits. The results were shocking. Nearly a quarter of the teens claimed to smoke daily and more than 40 percent admitted to being drunk during the previous month.
Equally important: researchers were able to predict which kids were most at risk. Specifically, they found that kids who were participating in organized activities, spent time with their parents, stayed in at night, and felt cared about at school were far less likely to engage in at-risk behaviors.
Common sense, yes, but with empirical evidence to support it.
What was equally apparent was drug and alcohol awareness campaigns were ineffective. Kids were turning a blind eye and deaf ear to such warnings. Because the simple truth was and always has been, that teenaged brains are wiring themselves for dealing with stress in unique ways.
For some kids, the stress was a high they craved and, as such, they turned to specific activities to intensify such feelings. For others, the stress was something to be avoided, and as such they sought specific drugs to numb those feelings. In short, with few other options, the kids were using alcohol, drugs, sex, smoking, and petty crime to deal with biological impulses.
So what did Iceland do?
A lot, starting with a new nationwide plan (Youth in Iceland) that, among other things:
- Changed laws to making smoking before 18 and drinking before 20 illegal
- Banned tobacco and alcohol advertising
- Imposed a curfew prohibiting kids 13-16 from being out past 10 during the school year and midnight in the summer.
Funding was provided by the state to create new clubs for sports, music, art, theater, dance, martial arts, etc., providing kids with healthy, natural, and more positive alternatives to dealing with their stresses. So, for example, a child who thrived on stress might join a sports group where another, more introverted type, might seek an artistic pursuit
Equally important was a renewed focus on adult participation in and commitment to these clubs. Training and networking sessions were created to better help both club managers and parents alike to understand and work with kids. Parents were encouraged to sign agreements outlining steps they personally would take to help their kids.
Have these efforts worked? Big time.
For starters, the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds claiming to have gotten drunk over the preceding month dropped from 42 percent in 1998 to just 5 percent in 2016. At the same time, marijuana use dropped from 17 percent to 7 percent and smoking plummeted from 23 percent to just 3 percent.
Why the success? Back to our old friend, common sense. The kids have healthy alternatives; they’re more engaged with their parents and other adults; this nationwide commitment demonstrates to the kids that they matter; and the adults in their lives are provided with improved skills for dealing with kids.
Read more about the Iceland youth program here.
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