Commentary #82: “How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs”

The Atlantic

Image Credit: The Atlantic

I saw this article on Facebook recently. Thanks to Brittany A. for sharing it.

Here’s the link to The Atlantic’s article, published January 19, 2017:


What were you doing in 1997?

According to a local psychologist, Gudberg Jónsson, back then most of Iceland’s teens were drinking or drunk. All the time. It felt unsafe.

Fast-forward 20 years. There aren’t teens wandering the park, nearly passed out drunk. There aren’t many wandering teens at all.

Why?

They’re involved in after-school classes, art club, dance, music, or with their families.


Iceland boasts incredibly low percentages of teens drinking, using cannabis, or smoking cigarettes.

Here are the numbers. This was a survey of 15-year-old and 16-year-olds, reporting these activities for the previous month.

Drunk, 1998: 42 percent
Drunk, 2016: 5 percent

Ever used cannabis, 1998: 17 percent
Ever used cannabis, 2016: 7 percent

Smoked cigarettes every day, 1998: 23 percent
Smoked cigarettes every day, 2016: 3 percent

It’s radical, and exciting. But, there’s a method behind it. And if adopted by other countries, it could have a revolutionary change. However, it’s a big if.


In 1992, Project Self-Discovery was formed, offering teenagers “natural-high alternatives to drugs and crime.”

Instead of a treatment-based approach or program, the idea was to allow the kids to learn anything they wanted, including art, music, dance, martial arts. By having the kids learn a variety of things and skills, their brain chemistry was altered, and give them what they needed to cope better with life. Other ways to combat depression, anxiety, numb feelings, etc. Life-skills training was also incorporated.

Research and studies in the early 1990s showed a series of factors that played into Icelandic teens not getting involved with alcohol and drugs: Participating in organized activities three to four times per week, especially sports; total time spent with parents during the week; feeling cared about at school; and not being outdoors in the late evenings.

Youth in Iceland began gradually, before being introduced nationally. Correspondingly, laws were changed. You had to be at least 18 to buy tobacco, and 20 to buy alcohol. Tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. In addition, another law, still in effect today, prohibits children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m. in winter and midnight in summer.

Another key provision was involving schools and parents. State funding was increased for sports, dance, art, music, and other clubs. Low-income families received help or assistance to take part in these extracurricular activities.

“Protective factors have gone up, risk factors down, and substance use has gone down—and more consistently in Iceland than in any other European country.”

Youth in Europe started in 2006. The questionnaires – Sent out to many European countries, South Korea, Nairobi, and Guinea-Bissau – shows “the same protective and risk factors identified in Iceland apply everywhere.”

However, no other country has made changes on the scale seen in Iceland. Sweden has called the laws to keep children indoors in the evenings “the child curfew.”

There are cities that have reported successes, being a part of Youth in Europe. Teen suicide rates are dropping in Bucharest, Romania. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of children committing crimes dropped by a third in another city.

“O’Toole fully endorses the Icelandic focus on parents, school and the community all coming together to help support kids, and on parents or carers being engaged in young people’s lives. Improving support for kids could help in so many ways, he stresses. Even when it comes just to alcohol and smoking, there is plenty of data to show that the older a child is when they have their first drink or cigarette, the healthier they will be over the course of their life.”

Would something like this work in the U.S.?

Not a generic model, nothing exactly like Iceland, but something specifically tailored to individual cities, maybe even individual communities. By working with communities to identify the biggest issues and the biggest needs, maybe adopting facets of the Iceland program may help teenagers, and others, in the U.S.


My two cents: While I do drink alcohol now, I’ve never smoked. I was never tempted by alcohol as a teenager. Not at home with my parents, anyway.

I was involved with music and sports from a very young age – Piano, gymnastics, soccer, then the viola, and softball. My church was another huge part of my life. If I wasn’t in school, at music lessons, or at sports practice, I was likely at church.

Also, I know my parents played a huge role in my life. Being an only child, I know I’m a bit biased. But, we had dinner at the table almost every night. We didn’t eat out a lot. The Internet was new, and no one had a smartphone. We had a computer, but there were strict limits, and more educational games than Web surfing. They were fully present in my life. I may have been sheltered and protected, but it gave me so many benefits.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Commentary #82: “How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs”

  1. Great article and info. Thanks! Reid

  2. Oh this is great! Iceland also is awesome for encouraging women in their careers. Happy holidays, Laura Beth!

  3. Pingback: Week in Review 6/7/2019 – BigAndPinkyToes

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